The Commission: Second Instalment of a Short Story

By Hugh Brody

Second instalment of a short story

We English are so easily embarrassed. George talked about his Ange-là. I sat on the river-bank and listened. I was wearing hip waders; he had not even brought his rod. He said he wanted to take me back to the beginning.

‘No one has ever touched me,’ he said. ‘Not really. There were girls, of course. I fell in love, married, had children. I had a good time.’ Though he said it in a way that suggested he hadn’t. He hesitated, then went on: ‘What’s it like, commissioning TV programmes?’

I was thrown by the change of subject. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘Except there are too many phone calls. And too many ideas. Even about fishing.’ I realised that I wanted to discourage him. ‘More than 100 a week. I spend half my time tying to tell people there’s no money.’

‘So how do you choose?’

‘Dinner parties,’ I said. ‘And nepotism.’ I meant it as a joke. Neither of us laughed.

‘You mean I have a chance, then!’ he said, and did laugh.

‘Listen,’ I said. ‘I’m interested in Angela [I pronounced it right], but I can’t see how I can do a film about her, about looking for her. There are no slots. No money. And it’s not fishing.’ I felt hot, uneasy. I wished we could talk about the rod I had brought – an old greenheart, I’d thought it would interest him. But he was too persistent.

‘Then ask me.’

‘Ask you? About what?’

‘Angela. Surely you have some curiosity.’

My discomfort increased. If I was sitting there as a commissioning editor, he could do the talking – that’s the game: they try and arouse my interest first, then I might ask a question or two. Though usually, from the beginning, I had to think of how to say no, of how to get it over with. I wanted to get this over with, now. I wanted to go fishing. I was caught though, without my office, in the open air.

‘What did she think of fishing?’ It was the only question that came to mind.

‘She hated it. No, not hate. She laughed, made jokes. She said it was a way of not doing the real thing.’

‘The real thing?’

‘Love. Loving, making love. She talked about the feeling of building life.’ I didn’t know what to say. ‘She told me I had to choose, between one thing and another.’

Did you love her?’ The question had blurted out, and embarrassed me.

‘That’s the point. That’s the reason you have to do this film – I mean, why it’ll be so popular.’

‘But listen,’ I said. ‘I can’t expect my audience – fishing people – to be delighted by a programme that ridicules their fishing. What are they going to do? Read the programme notice in the Radio Times: “Tonight’s episode of Caught shows you how daft you all are” – and then be sure to switch over to Match of the Day?’


‘That’s what my series is called,’ I said. ‘Don’t you watch TV?’

‘Never have done much. Never bothered. But it’s the perfect title. For our programme, I mean.’

I shrugged. I looked out at the river, and shifted about a bit, to show I was uncomfortable. I stared unhappily at the trout rising at the tail of the rapids, the spot George had hooked his big one. He must have sensed my unease; he spoke with sudden and surprising passion.

‘Listen,’ he said, more or less hissing the word at me. ‘Everyone’s been in love. Really in love, demented. And if they were lucky, they had the sex to go with it. You know – we all know – the sex when the whole body is shivering... When you think you’ll pass out if you touch, and explode if you don’t. When the other person is in you, around you... The madness of it; the wonder of it. Caught.’ He laughed suddenly. I stared at him. I thought: fishermen don’t talk like this; it’s silly. But he didn’t stop. ‘Everyone’s been there; but no one – no one I ever heard about – stays there. You have love in one dimension, marriage in another. That’s the commonplace, the cliché of it all. Because it’s true, it’s the way of things. So the other commonplace, the other way of things, is that everyone remembers – some do it fleetingly when the old moments break through what’s going on in life; others do it all the time, can’t get it out of their heads. Different ways of remembering of having what was once the clearest, most terrifying, of having it still, within us. It’s the oldest, most familiar of stories. It’s what art is made of.’ He stopped, and relaxed a bit. Then, in his usual, calmer voice: ‘That’s the Angela story. And that’s why it’ll be popular.’

I was still looking out at the river. I kept thinking: ‘I make fishing programmes, I make fishing programmes.’ At last I found what it was I wanted to say out loud: ‘But it’s not a story. What you describe – the cliché, as you call it, of love, lost love. I don’t hear a story.’ I knew, as I said this, that I was clinging to a mud-slide. He replied, as I must have known he would:

‘We’ll find her.’

There was a silence between us. I was sliding.

‘That’s the story. The memory. In my case it will be made real.’ He looked at me. ‘You’ll commission it – that’s the word, isn’t it?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘A commission.’ I thought: I must speak against this, I must be clear. I said: ‘Am I supposed to commission a programme about, about... a cliché that ends up with, with... a denunciation of fishing? For a fishing series!’ I was angry.

‘Think about it,’ he said. Cool as cool. I couldn’t think. ‘Fish,’ he said. ‘Try one of my caterpillars.’

I got up, not to fish but to think, to escape the mud-slide, to go, to put an end to this pressure. He stood up beside me. ‘I wanted to give you these,’ he said. I looked down at his hand; he was holding a tiny fly box – four little compartments in each of which was a different species of caterpillar. Perfect imitations – stripes and spots and feelers, even minute black legs, all made from fur and feathers.

‘Lures,’ I said. The purist is uneasy about anything other than artificial flies.

‘No,’ he said. ‘A stage, like nymphs, a part of insect life. You can fish them on the surface.’ I reached out and took the box from him. ‘They work,’ he said. I took one out of its compartment. ‘I make them,’ he said. ‘Angela approved.’

‘Did she?’

‘Yes. She loved to collect feathers, said it was the only point of fishing.’ I put the caterpillars back in the box. ‘No, no,’ he said. ‘They’re for you.’

‘Well, thank you.’ I wanted to say no, they were no use to me.

‘I can just imagine the hackles and wings she’ll have gathered up in Africa.’

I felt the mud around me. ‘There’s no money,’ I said. ‘My budget’s tied up, gone for the year.’

He frowned. ‘I don’t expect to be paid,’ he said. ‘Just some expenses. A flight to the Congo – or whatever it is. A gesture. You can’t say no to that!’

I thought: I can say no to anything, I’m a specialist in saying no. I said: ‘You must write something down. A treatment.’

‘Fine,’ he said. ‘More or less what I’ve told you.’

‘Yes,’ I said. How could I get rid of him, fend of this project, escape the mud, here on the river bank? I was wearing waders, for God’s sake, his box of caterpillars in one hand, my fly rod in the other.

To be continued...