The Commission: First Instalment of a Short Story

By Hugh Brody

I met him on the river. Wading against the current, up to his chest in the Rat Pool, he was fishing a dry fly. He must have been new to the place. Yet he seemed to know how to set his feet among the boulders, how to avoid entanglement in the willows. He fished as if by instinct.

I learned late, of course, that this was the effectiveness of obsession. I should have recognised, at first glance, the tension in his body, the fierceness of his gaze, the extraordinary concentration – these were not the postures even of the keenest fly fisherman (God knows they are concentrated enough!) but were stranger, madder, and a reason for moving on downstream. A convention of fly fishing is to enter the water at a good distance from anyone already there. But I was caught – attracted I suppose – by this newcomer to our water. We are so conscious of possible intruders or potential audiences – so much of fishing is the regaling of others.

I sat on the bank, at a distance, but able to watch the stranger cast. Excellent casting, too. He worked a long line close t o the bank, yet his fly drifted on to the surface and hovered in the current without the slightest drag from the line. I enjoyed the sight, and was made curious. I began to anticipate tales of adventure in fabulous rivers. I began to wait for him.

He saw me watching and gave a nod. Then, as he came to the head of the pool, he cast into the very edge of the rapids, peered up at where his fly ought to have been (the true fisherman hates to lose sight of his fly), and stuck. A flick of the wrist. Fast and sure. Instinct. And a fish was hooked. A brown trout, native of this water, not some hatchery transplant; the real thing.

The stranger seemed to be tentative, gentle, leaving no more than the weight of the line to strain and tire the fish. I wanted to call out to him, to warn him that these brown trout had a rare ability to shed a hook. I learned later that the hook had no barb – all the less reason for his apparent diffidence. But he took his time, and only when the fish began to wallow on the surface did he work it towards his landing net and scoop it out. Then I saw that he had caught a beauty – among the finest that have ever come out of our river. I saw him look at it for a while, deciding, I supposed, whether or not to keep his catch. Then, with surprising speed, he seized the trout in one hand, pushed the thumb of his other hand into its upper jaw, broke its neck, dropped it dead into the net and walked ashore – he had not even removed the fly. Thus we met.

I commented on the trout, and he replied with the name of a fly. Royal Wulff. American, heavily dressed and rather bright. Most of us on our river prefer muted, lightly dressed flies, and nymphs.

Well, we talked about rods and lines and tippets and hackles. I asked him where he like to fish. He spoke of New England, and the streams of the Pyrenees. There seemed to have been no one place, no home water. He said: ‘I shall be fishing here now.’ And he told me that he had moved to our village – at least, to a cottage a couple of miles away. He said he had taken an early handshake.

Many of my acquaintances, and even my fellow commissioning editors, do not conceal their boredom when I begin to speak of days on the river or programmes that I assure them will be nothing if not popular. True enough, we fisherman have some difficulty when it comes to cutting out the details – I suppose we cannot always see the fish for the flies. And I am tempted to divert this account into what, to me, appeared to be the essence of the man – his immaculate Daddy Longlegs (he said, I remember: ‘imitation is everything’), his use of American patterns (‘a man must see what he is doing’), his insistence on cane rods and what we who are steeped in the English conventions would declare to be mismatched lines (‘we must create traditions’), his rejection of flotants (‘chemical and artificial’), his use of barbless hooks (‘a tight line and it makes no difference’), his readiness to cast a dry fly downstream (‘I fish for trout, not approval in the Tatler’), and so on. How well I remember his first explanations of himself. His sharp judgments, spoken in a deep voice, left little room for doubts.

As is often the way with fishermen, our talk had an underlying intimacy. And we both revealed at least the edges of our domestic histories. He said he had a family; the children had grown and gone; so, it would seem, had their mother. He was alone. I referred, I know, to the moribund quality of my own marriage, though I remember that I did suggest, also, that Alison’s remoteness was understandable enough. I referred, I believe, to ‘us dull Englishmen’. I suppose that we placed one another on the maps of modern unhappiness.

His trout was lying among the dock leaves that he had arranged to keep it in the shade.

There had been a pause in our conversation.

He leaned across to the fish, rearranged the docks. ‘Circumcised,’ he said.

‘What?’ I looked at the trout.

‘I’m quoting Angela,’ he said, pronouncing the name as if it were French, Ange-là, angel over there, though I don’t believe that any such word exists. ‘She’s the woman in my life.’ He shrugged and laughed, in a way that left little doubt but that his Ange-là was not in his life. I looked at him. I noticed that his eyes were a very pale green. His brow was creased. He was peering at me, I did not look away; for a second, two seconds – for a long moment – we seemed to stare at one another. He said: ‘You know, I’d like to talk to you

I didn’t know how to answer. Underlying intimacy is normal; to declare it was to break the rules. Aware, maybe of my unease, he said: ‘But I’m sure you want to try one of those nymphs of yours. In the surface film.’

I heard myself say, ‘No, no. I have lots of time to fish here.’ No fisherman ever feels there is enough time; he must have known that I was lying. I said: ‘Where does your Angela – I mean Ange-là – live?’

He didn’t answer, but after a moment asked:

‘What’s your line of business?’

I told him about the TV job, commissioning programmes. I didn’t mention Alison’s name.

‘What kind of programmes?’

‘Fishing.’ For once I was not hesitant. ‘A series, about different kinds of fishing. Mostly coarse, floats, competitions. Not very interesting stuff, but better than most.’

‘Uncircumcised.’ I must have looked confused.

‘Carp, tench, gudgeon. Barbel.’ He looked at me, and waited for me to say something, to laugh perhaps. But I was trying to picture the difference, the two kinds of fish. ‘Angela’s sense of humour,’ he went on. ‘She found it all ridiculous.’

‘I see.’

‘Bottom feeders. Ledgering. And game fish. She played with the words. She liked to whisper them, in my ear. She used to say, “see what I mean?,”’ I was confused. I think he feared I might be offended. ‘I expect it’s popular,’ he said.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Like snooker.’ I shrugged, to distance myself from these things. I imagined that he had done a real job, something concentrated, important even, out in the world. But he seemed interested. He asked questions about the series, TV, what a commissioning editor did. Then he said:

‘One day I will tell you about Angela. It’s all to do with fishing, in a way.’

I looked out at the river, waiting for him to go on. Fish were rising against the far bank. There must have been a hatch – a species of early mayfly. The air was still. The splash of a small fish feeding in the shallows sounded very loud. I remember that a moorhen was calling downstream – there’s a reed bed in the lower pool; moorhens often nest there. He said, ‘Sure you don’t want to have a go?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘It’s a treat to watch them.’

‘You see,’ he said, ‘I’m looking for Angela. I mean, that’s what I do.  I look for her. It’s what I’ve been doing for quite a while.’

He stopped and I waited. Then he said, in a different voice: ‘Let’s try for a fish. There’s a big one over there. See what one of your lightly dressed nymphs can do!’ We sniggered like schoolboys.

‘Alright,’ I said. ‘But I think it’ll be a mayfly.’

As I waded out into the river, stripping line from the reel and false casting to be able to reach the big ones on the far side, I realised that I hadn’t asked his name.

A few days later, on a Sunday morning, the phone woke me.

‘Hello there, it’s George.’


‘We met at the river. We talked about your series. Royal Wulff. Remember?’

‘Of course I do.’

‘Listen, I have to talk to you. I have an idea for you. A film, a programme.’

A sense of dismay invades me whenever friends announce that they have an idea. As for George, I wanted to talk about fishing. ‘You could come over here,’ he said. ‘A drink? I’ll give you lunch.’

‘How about the river?’ I said. ‘I was thinking about trying for an hour or two. Same place, about three o’clock?’

‘Fine,’ he said, and couldn’t stop himself: I want to commission a film. We’ll go looking for Angela. We’ll find her.’

‘Where? Where will we go and look for her?’

‘The Belgian Congo.’

‘The what?’

‘She was always going on about pygmies. She claimed that they made love to the moon. Some sort of masturbation. She said she was going to live with them. So we’d try the Congo. I think that’s the place.’

‘It doesn’t exist anymore,’ I said. ‘The Congo, I mean.’

‘It used to.’

I felt his determination. My throat was dry, with panic. ‘I commission fishing films.’

‘I’ll tell you about her, about it all.’ His voice showed that he was sorry he had told me so much on the phone. ‘I’ll see you later. Same place, then?

We hung up. I sat up on the edge of the bed. I could hear Alison moving about downstairs. I thought, I’ll try a Royal Coachman, English version of the Wulff. Unconventional, but it could work. I did not want to think about George or the Congo.

To be continued...