The Commission: Third Instalment of a Short Story

By Hugh Brody

I did not hear from George for several weeks. The silence came as a relief. His statements about loves and passion, uttered on the banks of a trout stream, and even his immaculate caterpillars, had left me with a sense of embarrassment. I found myself hoping that he would be tactful enough, from now on – he must have sensed my discomfort – not to mention his search for the mysterious Ange-là. I thought to myself: let the angel stay over there.

Yet I missed him, with his eager conversation about fish and fishing, and smiled to myself when I remembered the intensity of his casts into the Rat Pool. I appreciated, in hindsight, in the way fishermen do, his remarkable skills and even his somewhat eccentric use of overdressed flies. To my surprise, I found that I wanted to tell him about Alison, about my marriage. I thought he would understand something about my struggles with disappointment, with loneliness. I sensed that he was a man who understood finance; he exuded a confidence that I have learned to associate with those who have made large amounts of money. I was sure I could share with him my own uneasy dependence on someone else’s capital.

I recognised, of course, the contradiction in these thoughts: I was embarrassed by his personal confidences, hoped that he would be silent on the subject of his Angela and those thoughts on sexual fulfilment, but looked forward to speaking to him of my Alison and the meagreness of my sex life. Was this a need to avoid the experience of disadvantage, the revelations of my relative failure? No, I think it was much simpler: he confided in me, it seemed, in order to persuade me to commission his film project. This invasion of the personal by the business was my difficulty. He brought me thoughts to which it is more or less my job and my habit to say no, while, somewhere, I began to discover, I wished above all to say yes to him.

Meanwhile, something of a dispute arose in our syndicate. There are eight of us who share the rental of the few miles of fishing above and below Rat Pool. We have always called ourselves the syndicate, in gentle self-mockery, though we have tended to take it all rather seriously. There had been arguments before, but this was the worst. It was the question of rainbows. Everyone has to face it, sooner or later.

Some of our members wanted to stock the river with larger hatchery fish, and argued in favour of monthly loads of large rainbow trout. They – the rainbows – are greedy and grow fast. Somewhere in their genes they recognise that they do not have long to live – three, four years, nothing like the span allotted to our native brownies. They gorge, often on the surface, striking at every kind of insect. Even caterpillars – and the arguments did make me think of George. I wondered which side he would have taken – conservative insistence that English streams should be kept for cautious, slow-growing English fish, or the radicalism of the market-place, allowing need for cash to press us into loading every pool with fat and eager America imports. Brown trout belong in our side of the world, in rivers that flow towards the Atlantic. Rainbows come from the Pacific. I couldn’t decide: George had seemed to appreciate the wiliness of our local trout, but he did use those bright American flies. Would he, with what I believed to be his well-developed sense of economic life, have sided with the members who kept insisting that we raise money? With rainbows we could charge more for day tickets.

While the dispute was raging I found myself to be curiously preoccupied with this question of George’s opinion – as if, once clear to me, I could make it my own.

Before I met George I would have sided without hesitation with the traditionalists. But now I listened to the members who insisted that rainbows are powerful, exciting on rods and lines designed for smaller fish. When it came to the choice I voted for Old England, but I felt no disappointment to find myself on the losing side.

A few days after the vote I stood by a slow run upstream of the Rat Pool – we imagined that rainbows put into slower water would stay longer in our stretch of the river. I could hear, in my mind’s ear, George observing that we were judging trout by our own inactive standards. I watched the hatchery lad scoop the first load of rainbows out of the tank in the back of the pick-up and carry them to the river. Within a few minutes the first to be released were splashing out in the current. Excited and surprised by freedom, or beginning, right away, to gorge themselves. I found myself speculating about Angela: would she say that rainbows were uncircumcised? Surely not; they rise to flies. I shook these thoughts out of my mind. Mayfly spinners were falling on to the surface of the river. I decided I would come down the next day and see how easy it might be to tempt these newcomers with an artificial.

The next morning – by the kind of coincidence, heavy with implications of destiny, that revived my sense of being caught by the man’s absurd ideas – a letter arrived from George, enclosing the treatment. I was disappointed that when I did, at last, hear from him again it was on the subject of his project. And he had sent his treatment to my home. Another way in which I was being made to feel the pressure of the personal where it did not belong. I found myself thinking, with real unfriendliness, that he must have looked me up in the phone book before he went. Couldn’t he have used the office, and gone through my assistant? I thought, as I had before, that I should never have accepted those caterpillars. Handwritten in a thick brown crayon of some kind, a form of primitive postmark perhaps, were the words ‘From Belgian Congo.’ There was no return address, neither in the letter nor the treatment. He was not interested in my reply. Anger moved through me; indignation about the contrariness of my feelings for the man.

The letter said, ‘Dear Peter, I don’t think I told you that Angela was a very shy and nervous person. So I can not be sure that she will go along with my proposal. But even if she doesn’t, the programme will still be excellent. So here is the treatment you asked for. I shall stay here as long as necessary and in due course will send you an address to which you will be able to forward my expenses. I think we agreed on expenses, no fees. Looking forward to seeing you here. I’ve found some excellent water – chance to be the first person to cast a dry fly on it, tho’ I’ve no idea what kind of fish they are. Tight lines. George.’

I thought, as I read this note of his, tight lines was right. There was no agreement, about expenses or anything else. I had told him, several times, that I could not see any way of supporting his search for this Angela woman; I had said, over and over, that it had nothing to do with fishing. He somehow managed to misconstrue, or remain indifferent to, my position. He simply assumed, at each step, that what he wanted was bound to be right, could not be denied. He did not hear the word no. Our negotiations – tho’ this word is to exaggerate all that had taken place between us – occurred on the river bank, amid fishermen’s talk of lines and flies and the whereabouts of trout, in settings where we spoke as friends. He had not approached me across my desk or through my assistant, not in the places and circumstances which were designed to make the word ‘no’ the easiest of sounds. I felt in this letter of his, with its cavalier assumptions about some agreement and without an address or phone number to which an appropriate rebuttal might be sent, he was continuing to take advantage of friendship.

His treatment came to very little – two sides of hotel notepaper, handwritten. I call it a treatment, this message of his from the jungle. He didn’t know what a treatment was – but who does? It included the line: ‘If a fisherman falls in love with someone who hates fish, what can this mean? To answer this, we must ask: what is a fish?’ And after some confused philosophising, it went on: ‘Angela was the woman of my dreams. She liked collecting feathers, liked the idea of wrapping them on to hooks. She had a preoccupation with circumcision. She was able to answer important questions about fish, but she did not like them.’

As for the rest, it did no more than assert what George had always asserted: he would go to Africa, to the Pygmies, and find this old true love of his, find her – or it, the love we all believe should be ours, the dream we all lose – on behalf of the British public. A concession to the nature of my series came in a single sentence: ‘Pygmies are well known to be enthusiastic fishermen, taking much pleasure in catching and eating many species, although they use strange kinds of nets and poisons, not hooks and lines.’ And I was especially reminded of George, of the embarrassing aspect of his conversation with me, when I read his old affirmation of this absurd project: ‘Why not film this encounter – between a man who had lost his lover, and a lover who thought she had escaped the man.’

The final paragraph of his proposal was a transparent attempt to overcome my oft-stated reluctance to believe that George’s venture had anything to do with my work as a commissioning editor: ‘Angela and her Pygmies will take us fishing. We shall have a great love story. Angela and I will at last be fishing together. I imagine she will have adopted the habits of her Pygmy hosts, and so she will be naked. If it’s appropriate, so shall I. We will have found that we can after all be together beside a river. If there is no reconciliation, then there will still be the journey to the river, the fishing.’

His ‘treatment’ ended with a demand that I send out a film crew. He asked me to let him know (and this in a communication that didn’t bother with a return address!) how many people that would be. ‘I shall have to make arrangements at this end,’ he said. ‘Be sure to give me these details when you send the money.’

What was I to make of this? I went to the river, and had a try for the rainbow newcomers. I worked the Rat Pool from tail to head. The fish were feeding on something, lunging at the surface, leaving those rich boiling shapes in the surface that suggest large and hungry trout. I tried mayfly spinners, a pheasant-tail nymph and even a daddy longlegs imitation. In the end I tied on one of those caterpillars. I knew what would happen: I cast out upstream, dropped the caterpillar with a horrible slash into a calm glide under the far bank where it was seized by a rainbow that, when hooked, surged across the river and then leapt high above the water, turned downstream and raced towards me, causing the line to go slack and, as I at last pulled in enough to have a tight line, twisted round almost beside my waders, charged upstream again and, as I tried to slow its rush towards a reed-bed, broke free. It must have weighed more than four pounds. I tied on another caterpillar, cast to the same upstream glide, and another fish grabbed the thing. This time I was more careful, more tentative, and I brought it to my landing net. As I unhooked the caterpillar from its jaw, I felt a thrill at its greed and strength, and was not blind to the silver beauty of its flanks and the iridescent patch of multicolour – its rainbow on its gills. I could not bring myself to kill it; it was so foreign, and I felt somehow, perhaps because of George’s caterpillar and with a sense of the trout farm where it had spent its life, I was cheating.

I waded ashore, sat on the bank and watched them, feeling a little foolish.

That night I couldn’t sleep. When Alison realised that I was awake she began to talk to me. We hadn’t talked for a long time about anything other than the stuff of daily routines. She put a hand on my shoulder and asked me what was wrong. I didn’t know what to say. She didn’t press me. I must have dozed off, reassured and eased, for all the silence between us, for all the unspoken mistrust, by the kindness of her hand. I was woken by the phone. Alison picked it up and passed me the receiver. After a fury of clicks and hisses, followed by some incomprehensible shouts that I took to be the voice of the operator in some utterly foreign language, I heard, distant and thin but unmistakable, the voice of George.

‘Where are you?’ I shouted.

‘In the forest. A guest house. Can you hear me?’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Not loud, but clear.’

‘Listen,’ he said. ‘It’s Angela.’

‘You’ve found her?’

‘Yes. No.’


‘I said no. You see, something’s happened. Something terrible.’

The line was getting worse. I urged him to shout louder.

‘What’s happened?’ I bellowed from the darkness of our bedroom towards the African jungle. ‘What is it?’

Then he said – I’m sure he said – from deep in the sound shadows of our fading connection: ‘She’s been eaten.’

‘What? I can’t make you out. Yell.’

He went on talking. I understood him to say: ‘You’ve got to come here. As soon as you can.’ Perhaps it was one of those transoceanic echoes, but he seemed to be repeating the words ‘come here, come here.’

‘Where?’ I shouted. ‘Come where?’

But the line died. I waited, listening to that fuzz of nothingness that one knows will never return to being a voice. After a minute or so the line buzzed its dialling tone at me. George had disappeared I knew not where. I passed the receiver back to Alison, who hung up for me.

‘What was all that?’ she asked.

‘George,’ I said. ‘From the Congo. About his Angela. I think she’s been eaten.’

To be continued...

Hugh Brody’s books include Maps and Dreams, and Means of Escape. His latest film is a documentary about the Nootka Indians, former whale-hunters on the northwest coast of Canada.