www.thesummercrew.co.uk
Tales from the salmon netting on the River Spey in the north east of Scotland

6. The Monster

June 5th, 2008 by John Bennett
 
 6. The Monster: Play Now

The storm raged outside the bothy, hurling sheets of rain against the wooden walls, and rattling the cowl on the stove pipe. Inside, however, the bothy was warm and dry, filled with a frowsy heat thrown off by the blazing pot-bellied stove, glowing red in the dim light of the hurricane lamps. Sandy Geddes, the skipper of the summer crew, had long since concluded that there would be no more fishing done that night, however, the crew were compelled to stay on shift, and though they would have all preferred to be at home in their beds, there are worse things in the world than getting paid for sitting around in a warm bothy doing nothing.
Sandy poured himself a little dram of the Cragganmore that he kept for medical emergencies then looked round the bothy. Jake was catching up with some much-needed sleep on the pile of nets at the back of the bothy. Black Alec was trying to fix a broken transistor radio he’d found in a bin in Mosstodloch and Robbie, the first mate, had just finished a long, rambling tale about his cousin from Auchterless who’d eaten a tin of catfood for a bet. The younger members of the crew were sitting in the battered old armchairs which lined the bothy, stunned by the heat of the potbellied stove.
“Sandy, do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” said the Stingman, wiping a bead of sweat from his brow.
“That depends fit the question is,” said Sandy taking a sip of his whisky.
“How did you lose the tip of the little finger on your left hand?”
Sandy laughed, and looked at his hand, “och, that’s a lang story that.”
“Weel, we’ve got plinty time,” said Robbie looking at his watch, “as ye said yersel, there’s nae mair fushin gan on the night.”
“These young loons dinna want to hear aboot ancient history,” said Sandy settling back in his seat.
“No, Sandy go on, tell us,” said the Stingman. Sandy shook his head.
“Aye, go on, tell us,” said the Puddock, as he leaned over and placed one of his cheese sandwiches on top of the stove, with the aim of toasting it. Sandy looked reluctant, though whether this was genuine reticence or simply part of the story teller’s art is debatable, for thirty seconds later he sat foward in his chair.
“O.K., boys ah’ll tell ye fit happened te ma pinkie,” he said, looking thoughtfully up at the ceiling of the bothy where the flickering light from the open stove and the oil lamps played on the roof, “if ye gan richt back tae the beginnin, it actually started on a night like this, aboot…” Sandy stopped and thought once more before turning to the first mate, “fan wis it Robbie?”
“I wid say it wis aboot seven year ago, mebbe,” said Robbie, looking over at his skipper. Sandy nodded his head then continued.
“Noo ye kaen yersel that a storm efter a lang dry spell freshens the watter and encourages the fush, fa are aa hingin aroon ootside the moo, te enter the river and run up to spawn. Weel, efter that wee spate seven year ago, fan the watter had come back doon a wee bitty, the fush started te run. It wis unbelievable, it wis like the auld days, back afore the war, fan there wis that mony fush in the river ye could walk fae ae bank tae the ither and nae get yer widers weet…they were running as mony as echt crews in thon days, can ye imagine that boys, echt crews on the river…onyway fa wis I Robbie?” asked Sandy having lost the thread a little.
“Ye were saying aboot the strang run seven year ago.”
“Oh, aye…in thon twa days efter the storm we landed mair fush than we’ve tain in the hale o this month so far. They were basically louping in the box and knocking themselves oot, but that’s nae the point, the point is that it wis on the final shot o the second day fan I seen it.”
“Seen fit,” asked the Puddock leaning over and checking to see how his sandwich was doing.
“The monster,” said Sandy in a hushed voice, sitting forward in his seat, “a fifty pound fush. Sitting jist below the far pier of the viaduct, resting fae the worse o the current. Robbie’ll tell ye.”
“Personally, I thocht it was mair like fifty five pound; it wis certainly bigger than Jake, onywy,” said Robbie, looking over in the direction of the nets at the back of the bothy.
“Aye,” muttered Jake who had obviously woken up, “and it wis cleverer than you.”
“Ha, ha,” said Robbie, clearly unamused.
“So what did you do?” asked the Stingman.
“Aye weel, the thing wis there wis nae wy we could actually shoot that bit o the pool and besides it wis the last shot o the day, so we hid tae let it go,” said Sandy, helping himself to a drop more of the Cragganmore before sitting back in his seat and continuing with the tale.
“But that night though, I couldna stop thinking aboot the monster fush, efter aa’ there hidna been a fush that size cocht in the river since pre-war days. So the next morning I decided tae tak the boat up the river and shoot it doon fae the Pot, up by Fochabers. I mean, ye can nivir really tell hoo far a fush’ll run in a night; sometimes it’s jist up tae the next pool and sometimes it could get aa the wy up tae the Mulben burn, but there wis something telling me that I hid tae get that fish. It wis burning inside me, kaen”
“He wis like a man possessed,” confirmed Robbie.
“Onyway, the next day we shot it doon tae the Gow’s island, still catching plinty fush mind, but wi oot ony sign of the monster. Noo, as ye kaen, the Gow’s Island pool is a difficult een to work on account o the steep banks and the deep, fast flowing watter, but as soon as we started tae haal the net we kaent we hid a big bag, even despite the strang current, but it was only fan we hid the net hauf in, that the monster breached.”
“Aye, Sandy,” said Robbie, “you almost let go o the net you wis that excited.”
“Aye, I wis sure we hid him.”
“So fit happened?” asked the Puddock turning the sandwich which had filled the bothy with the pleasant smell of melting cheese.
“You’ve seen fush loup the net afore, hiv ye?” The younger members of the summer crew, who were by now all sitting forward in their seats listening attentively, nodded their heads
“And ye can tell it’s jist luck, they jist jump kaen. Nut this time…I swear the monster kaent exactly fit it wis deein. It wis like it hung in the air and looked at me wi its ane guid ee, then dipped its heid oer the tap o the net and wis aff.”
“What do you mean, ‘it’s one good eye’,” asked Gonzo.
“Jist fit I said. The other ee wis missing, tain oot by a seal or an otter, or fit ivir.”
“It was unreal,” said Robbie shaking his head.
“OK, but that doesn’t explain how you lost your little finger,” said the Stingman.
“Aye weel, if ye ca canny, I tell ye,” said Sandy leaning over and pouring himself more whisky before picking up the narrative where he left off.
“O.K., so that weekend I took ma wife, Meg, oer te see her sister in Inverurie, but aa the wy there and aa the wy back I couldna think o onything else but that fush and they wy it stared at me as it louped the net.”
“It et ye up, did it, Sandy?”
“Aye, ye could say that, Robbie,” said Sandy nodding his head in agreement, before continuing with his tale. “The next three days we shot doon the river. Well, ye kaen yersel, ye’ll nae get mony complaints aboot that fae the crew, efter aa there’s nae haaling te be deen and ye get a good change o scene, but the rods dinna like it and there wis a complaint sent fae the Association and fae the Laird.”
“So what did you do?” asked the Stingman.
“Aye weel, I pretended I’d nae seen it and loaded her up for ae last go…onyway, to cut a long story short, we wis haaling in on Essil on that final day, when the monster breached for a second time, but this time I wis ridy. I hid twa o the boys in the watter to lift the corks and this time it worked, the fish couldna get oot. It tried mind. But it couldna. Onywy, we haaled the net up onta the scap, wi the monster in the bag and I leaned doon te steady the monster to hit it on the heid wi ma priest, when it suddenly turned on me, and sunk its teeth into the pinkie on ma left hand.”
Sandy held his hand aloft, waggling his truncated pinkie in the flickering light of the hurricane lamps. “It bit it right off.”
“But you got the fish?” asked the Stingman.
“No,” said Sandy shaking his head sadly, “because wi a flick o its tail it was aff the scap and inta the shallows and afore ony o us could react, it wis gone…like snaw aff a dike.”
“So fit happened te the fush?” asked the Puddock.
“It was last seen heading doon the river again,” said Robbie.
“Chawing on Sandy’s pinkie,” said Jake, sitting up on the pile of nets and stretching. Everyone laughed as Jake sniffed the air.
“Fit’s that smell,” he asked, wincing.
“Oh no,” wailed the Puddock spotting his by now badly burned cheese sandwich smouldering on the stove top.

***

Two days after the storm, Sandy was sitting outside the bothy relaxing after a shot when the two students came running down from the viaduct.
“Sandy, Sandy, we’ve just seen the monster,” said the Stingman breathlessly. Sandy stood up, then sat back down again.
“Aye, aye boys, ye almost hid me there,” he said, picking up the paper nonchalantly.
“No, no, Sandy,” said Gonzo, “come and see, I swear if we’re lying, you can gie us oor jotters.”
Up on the viaduct, Sandy and Robbie lay looking down through the metal slats to the water below. It was Robbie who spoke first.
“That’s him skip. See his ee. It’s missing ” Sandy said nothing, but lay there, watching the monster which “swam before him as the monomaniac incarnation of all those malicious agencies…all that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain.”
“Fit are we g’te dee, skip?” asked Robbie.
“We’re g’te shoot under the brig. I’m nae letting him get awa this time,” said Sandy calmly determined.
“No, skip, ye canna, the current’s oer strang and there’s the rocks fae the railway line, ye’ll get the gear snagged.” But Sandy wasn’t listening. He stood up and brushed himself down and he was just about the turn back towards the bothy when something fell from his pocket, clattering noisily before falling through one of the slats in the iron bridge and into the the dark water below.
“Fit wis that?” asked Robbie.
“Ma lighter.”
“The een yer niece gave ye?”
“Aye, but is the fush still there,” said Sandy apparently unconcerned by the loss of this prized possession.
“Aye,” said the Puddock, who was still lying down watching the fish.

***

The Puddock was left stationed on the viaduct to keep an eye on the fish while the rest of the crew got ready.
“Sandy, are ye sure…” said Robbie.
“Robbie, fa’s skipper o’ this crew?” said Sandy with a fixed look on his face.
Salmon fishers always shoot a pool from the top, making best use of the current, however in their attempt to catch the monster, Robbie and Jake had to row under the bridge and against the current as it wasn’t possible to launch a boat from the top of the pool on the other side, so it was with no little skill and effort that Robbie and Jake managed to get the boat in place so that Sandy could lay the net between the monster and the stone pier without scaring it unduly. When they landed the head of the net everyone was quiet, concentrating on the job at hand. When the net was halfway in, the water suddenly exploded and the monster breached, but the Puddock and Gonzo were on hand to lift the corks, thwarting its attempted escape.
“We’ve got him this time,” said Robbie, excitedly, but when they got the net onto the scap there was no sign of the great fish which had escaped through a large hole ripped in the net by the large jagged rocks used for the railway line embankment.

***

When the rest of the crew left that night, Sandy locked the bothy and walked over to the bank of the river, where he stood for a long while looking into the dark, brooding water running under the bridge. The great fish had eluded him once more.

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