Written by Andrew Dennis, Dave Freer and Eric Flint
Illustrated by Barb Jernigan
Episode 1: The Wandle Pike
You may call me Ishmael. Yes, I know it's been done. But since my name will change constantly as the story progresses, it may as well begin in the public domain.
If any story can be said to truly begin, especially one that involves—at last count—forty-three galactic cabals, nine of which are intergalactic in scope; conspiracies spanning no fewer than eighteen separate and distinct universes; at least six of which involve clearly definable deities, then this one started at a pub in the part of South London I inhabited at the time.
This particular evening was one of those that had started before lunchtime. If he paces himself, a man might drink a pint of regular-strength beer every hour for days on end and never reach a condition of serious inebriation. We subscribed to this theory. By "we," I refer to myself and the other reprobates present on this particular evening, Patrick Welch, Bobby Hudson and Sheila Rowen. Sheila's presence in this normally all-male sort of gathering can be explained by her vast capacity for drink, a sarcastic humor too sharp to be denied entry, and—last but not least—the fact that she was larger than any of us except Welch, probably even stronger than he was on account of her fanatical devotion to body-building, and tattooed beyond belief.
As I say, we subscribed to this theory. Indeed, we tested it to destruction. Of course, you had to start the evening before lunchtime in this pub, in order to test it properly. Come six o'clock or thereabouts, they put the bouncer on the door and unless you were a childhood friend of his, you didn't get in. That place was popular, and invariably, at a weekend at least, wedged solid of an evening. The trick was to get in there about lunchtime or a little after and dig in for the long haul.
Comes about midnight, and the conversation turned to the fishing to be had in those parts.
Now, this is not as barren a topic as you might think. There are, in fact, quite the number of bodies of water in London with catchable coarse fish in them, should you take the trouble to look.
Then, the topic widened, so it did. And now it comes time to introduce the Captain Ahab (not to say the Jonah, 'twas ever his fate to be thus) of this little tale.
I refer, of course, to Bobby Hudson. The thing about Hudson was that he was a bugger for trouble. Highly entertaining trouble, mostly, but trouble nonetheless.
If he wasn't asking night-club bouncers what they were looking at, or—memorably—going out jogging in Glasgow wearing a T-shirt that read British By Birth, English By The Grace of God, he was demonstrating his famed disdain for high-speed dense traffic or fooling about in high places. Night-climbing, the practice of scaling public buildings to the consternation of the emergency services and the scandal of the parish, was one of his favorite sports.
Be all this as it may, Bobby took up the theme of matters piscatorial. He'd a notion about him that, should one desire the ultimate in freshwater sport, the pike was the thing, and hardly were there pike to be found in London. "Deep water," said Hudson, "deep, still water. Slow-flowing at best. That's how pike like to hunt."
"There's pike to be had in London," said Welch, "there're canals and such lousy with them. You want pike-infested waters, Bobby my boy, London can oblige."
Now, we've introduced the Ahab of this tale. We must needs have a Queequeg. And this is the bit where she pitches in. And if Sheila's sex did not match the model properly, her vast assortment of tattoos most certainly did.
"Have you heard about the Pike that's supposed to be in the Wandle?" she asked. I swear, she pronounced it with a capital letter.
Sheila was the only local of the four of us. Patrick was a kiwi, I'm Lancastrian, and Hudson was from the West Country somewhere.
Rowen, on the other hand, was authentic Sarf Lunnon, Brixton in her native habitat, half Trinidad and half Irish in her heritage. Now, anyone passing a moment's thought over this would wonder why we—indeed I, who share part thereof—were not on a strict and searching enquiry as to the likely veracity of Sheila's tale. Both islands—fair Erin and balmy Trinidad—have a long tradition of the wind-up and the tall story. Compound these with the native Londoner's insistence that the city excels all others in all matters, and you have a recipe for a first-class fish story.
And there was precedent. London is notorious for spawning bizarre monsters most of which turn out, on closer examination, to be utterly legendary. The infamous Brentford Griffin Incident of 1984 is well known in the literature cryptozoological, and I leave to the interested student further enquiry as to the details of that shabby debacle of the journalistic profession.
Tonight, though, Rowen was to introduce us to the Wandle Pike.
First, a brief note on the regular, non-legendary, pike. It's a handsome fish, torpedo shaped, cheerfully predatory and ranging in size when caught from two-pound tiddlers up to record weights in the region of sixty pounds. It's the biggest fish found in British fresh waters, challenged only by the big farmed carp that are bred for the real hard-core anglers who want a prey that's capable of taking their arms out of their sockets, is smart enough to plot revenge for being caught and laughs off the puny tackles and rigs of ordinary anglers.
Moreover, the pike, a fish of distinction and cunning, is known to fight back. Looking sort of like a freshwater barracuda, it has been known in its larger specimens to drag waterfowl down to their doom, attack wading anglers and generally provoke fear and consternation. There was even a horror movie made about a giant pike supposedly inhabiting a Cumbrian lake that died a mercifully swift death at the box office. The Wandle Pike made the twelve-foot robotic fish built for that film look like a minnow.
"You intrigue me," said Hudson.
"As well I should," said Sheila, "for the Wandle Pike is truly the finest fish you might take in these parts."
"I smell a Griffin, Rowen, I make no bones about it," I said, injecting the only sceptical note of the evening. Well, not the only sceptical note. Just the last to be heard out of any of the four of us.
"Damned sophist," she replied. "This is not simply some random and drunken sighting, of a beast known a priori to be mythical; this is a documented fish, gentlemen."
Naturally, we called on her to furnish full and complete particulars.
Our calls for the story led to the kind of detailed negotiations that can only arise when all present are mortal hammered and the question of whose round it might be rises to the head of the agenda. Turns out it was me, and between getting the beers in and recycling some I'd taken aboard earlier in the day, I returned to:
"—last time it was caught was in 1974. That was how I got to know about him, it was my Pa that last caught the Wandle Pike. He said it was two feet longer than he was, and he was no small man."
"Yeah, but how long're we talking about here?" asked Patrick. "I mean, respect to your dad and all, but how tall is he? Or was he?"
"My father, you nitpicker, is, was and remains six feet tall in his boots, making the Wandle Pike some eight feet in length when last captured." Sheila tried to draw herself up in dignity as she said this, the effect being somewhat marred as ever by the fact that she was red-eye plastered and talking around the stub of a coffin-nail.
"Eight feet? Surely they don't grow that big?"
"Nah, they do," said Hudson, betraying a hitherto-unsuspected fund of ichthyological lore. "They keep growing until they die. Fish're notorious for it. They ain't got the genes for old age."
"So how much did it weigh?" I asked.
"Dad never got to weigh him. He got the hook out, damn near lost his hand doing it, and then he was fighting with a fish bigger than he was. As I say, he was no small man. He worked as a docker when he first came off the boat from Trinidad. Well, he got his scale to the thing, and it gave a heave, threw him off, and slithered back into the river."
"And the fucking pudding," came the reply, along with other traditional exclamations of disbelief. Now this was a fish story.
"Just as it was told to me!" Sheila insisted. "Wouldn't have done any good to weigh him in any case. Dad's scale only went up to fifty pounds."
"That's a damn' big fish," said Bobby.
There was a warning sign, if you like. Gone midnight, early Sunday morning. None present close enough to sobriety to poke it with a long stick, and Hudson's got that gleam in his eye.
Enter Welch with petrol for the flames. "Of course, if we make only a few simple assumptions about that fish, we might deduce that it weighed somewhere in the region of two hundred, two hundred and fifty pounds."
"Three or four times the current record." I was inebriated past caring for the consequences of what I was saying. Set in a crowded theatre just then, I'd have been shouting fire.
"That is a damn big fish," said Hudson.
"Of course," said Patrick, now over the recklessness event horizon and collapsing into a singularity of inadvisability, "it'll have got bigger since then. Think about it. It actually held the English record from 1934 to 1938. By 1974 –forty years later—it was anything up to five times the weight of any pike ever recorded in British Waters."
"Damn big fish" said Hudson. "Eight feet long, drawing a foot and a half of water, and capable of wrestling its way out of the grasp of a fully-grown man."
Welch was not to be restrained, although by this stage I was getting a premonition—no second sight needed, just that peculiar clarity of thought that comes after twelve hours of sustained drunkenness—and was thinking about braining him with a barstool. Or just running for my life, and devil take the hindmost.
"Damn big fish," said Hudson.
"Teeth an inch long, his stripes so broad he's almost totally black, his mouth scarred with all the places he got caught in his younger days. And he's been feeding and growing all the while, on God knows what in the Wandle, and probably venturing into the Thames as well. But he's only ever been caught in the Wandle."
"Damn big fish," said Hudson.
At this point Sheila set another round down on the table. I hadn't noticed her get up, and seeing her come back unbidden with more beer should've set me to running. Any night on which Sheila was buying without being frogmarched to the bar and all but mugged for the price of the drinks was definitely too rum and uncanny for any sensible man to be abroad.
"Gentlemen," she said, "I give you the Wandle Pike."
The Wandle Pike! was the toast.
"Could be anywhere up to half a ton by now," said Welch.
"Damn big fish," said Hudson. "I say we catch that fish."
Well, we received that in silence.
"When?" I asked.
Just then came the fateful cry from the bar.
"Time, gentlemen, please!"
One o'clock in the morning, all of us profoundly drunk, and a Mighty Quest in the offing. A sensible man would have run for cover and tried to forget all about the whole sordid business. Alas, there had been drink taken and, some minor rumblings of self-preservation apart, I sensed the game afoot.
"Right," said Hudson, rising to his feet with a pint and a half untouched before him—thus could his firmness of purpose be measured—"What we need is tackle."
"Hold on," I said, "do we have to catch the fucker tonight? There's a bed calling to me. I need to get a run-up on my hangover."
Bobby thumped the table, redistributing the ash and slops. "No!" he cried, drawing curious glances. "I know how this goes. We talk and talk and never get around to it."
"I'm in," said Patrick. "This sounds like one to tell the grandkids. Besides, I want to see how this sheepshagger performs with rod and line."
"You'll be needing a native guide, then, Bwana," said Rowen, provoking Hudson into his best Great White Hunter pose. He'd have done better if he hadn't dropped his cigarette out of his mouth and down his shirtfront.
"Bugger," I said. "Well, we'll finish our pints first, eh?"
You might not know this, but there's twenty minutes of drinking-up time after closing time. We were all double-parked, Sheila having heard last orders and got another round in before the bar shut. Result: three lads and a tattooed lady weightlifter trying to choke down a pint and a half before the bouncers heaved us into the street.
It's the cause of more trouble in Britain than anything else. You walk out of a nice warm pub into the cold night air, the entire alcoholic content of a pint or two of beer hitting you all at once. You're bound to be a bit touchy, right?
But we were on a mission, so we walked right past the minor skirmishes—promising ones, at that, that looked like the makings of a nice little riot—not even stopping to spectate.
Well, the only one of us with tackle handy was Bobby. He had digs just down the road in Kennington. Mine was packed away in my parents' house, two hundred miles away. Patrick's was on the other side of the planet, likewise. Rowen's was on the far side of Peckham, and passing through that neighbourhood twice in one night was more weirdness than any of us wanted to handle.
Reaching Bobby's place, we waited perhaps four seconds—out of decency—after he vanished in back somewhere to root out his tackle before raiding his beer supply and sticking the video on.
Hudson's video collection deserves mention. It consisted entirely of a subcritical mass of football and pornography. The football was a comprehensive collection of classic games and highlights tapes. Standard stuff, if present in unusual quantity. The porn was, in contrast, off the map.
There are conventions in grumbleflicks, for crying out loud. Cheesy dialogue. Improbable situations. Outlandish facial hair. Strange background music that sounds like it's being played on a £19.99 Casiotone keyboard. Not for Hudson: he collected the downright odd. The one that sticks in my memory was what is arguably the strangest pornographic film ever made: The Naked Orchestra. Fifteen or so nude women, equipped with instruments, miming (badly) to some minor item from the classics for about half an hour in soft focus while the camera pans and zooms around. There are few things one can do to make a naked woman into a faintly ridiculous and frankly unappealing sight. Making her play a tuba is one of them.
None of us was in any condition to appreciate the brain-bending qualities of Hudson's collection of naughties, so after brief debate, Patrick got up and picked out the old standby.
"I give you the most violent match ever played in the domestic professional game," he said, "the Leeds-Arsenal cup final of 1976. The highlights tape: all the goals and fouls. In short, the whole game."
Truth was spoken: it had been a first-class needle match. Jackie Charlton publicly threatened two players on the Arsenal side before the match. A recent experiment to apply modern standards of refereeing concluded that the game would have finished with nine of twenty-two players sent off and all but one of the rest on yellow cards.
In the actual game only one yellow card was given, for playing like a great soft fairy. Ah, it was a hard game in those days. My grandad, God rest his brain (his body, foul temper and vitriolic wit live on yet) reckons letting women into football grounds ruined the game by civilizing it. I'd have subscribed to the theory myself, had I not made Sheila Rowen's acquaintance.
Be that as it may, come scarce twenty minutes into the first half, we were rudely interrupted. It was Hudson, returned from girding his loins. "Come on, we've a fish to catch."
"Fuckin' 'ell" said Rowen, in hushed and wondering tones.
"Strewth," said Welch, lapsing into antipodean cliché that ordinarily he eschewed.
I let go with a quaint northern idiom or two.
And well might we have eructated our surprise. For Hudson had donned an aspect of such potent piscatorial valor that anyone might have sworn at the sight.
He had the lot. Hat with flies in it, waistcoat with dozens of bulging pockets, stout waterproof trews, heavy-duty green wellies, tackle box bigger than he was, the lot. The effect was somewhat marred by the "Brits on the Piss" T-shirt, but that was all. (Said shirt depicts an anthropomorphic bulldog with a pint of lager and . . . but ethnic stereotypes need no aid from me.)
"To Wandsworth!" cried Bobby.
"How are we getting there?" asked Patrick.
"Tube stopped ten minutes ago," I ventured, hoping to induce sense by dashing hope of transport. There was no chance of a taxi south of the river at that hour, so no need to mention it.
"No night bus where we want to go," added Sheila. She was perhaps having second thoughts. Or, at least, thoughts of practicing the Drinker's Transcendence, Becoming One with the Sofa. Like becoming One with the Cosmos, but without so much effort or sense of ambition.
"No problem," said Hudson. "I phoned for a minicab."
And I thought I'd shuddered before.
Let me explain, briefly, the institution of the London Minicab, by reference to ancient legends of vampires and werewolves and the strangeness that happens at the witching hour.
The traveler wishing to proceed about the great metropolis that is London has a number of options. He can drive his own car at an average of three (3) miles per hour while being financially sodomised by parking and congestion charges.
Or you can take the tube. The tube's a masterpiece of mid-Victorian mass transit technology and, apart from looking in parts like a set for the far-future scenes in Terminator, is a convenient way to get about. But it shuts down at one in the morning.
Then there are the buses; all the disadvantages of the underground and of road transport, and none of the convenience of either.
Nightbuses are another phenomenon. I'm convinced that the N144 Nightbus out to Clapham is the single rummest and most uncanny form of transport known to man. I got on one night in a nun's habit—long story you really won't care to hear—and still wasn't the oddest-looking customer. (The prize went to a stout party in a wetsuit).
Now, we could have taken the nightbus and walked on, but . . . but . . .
There are limits in these matters. Actual exertion was beyond them. We were prepared to risk a minicab. Even after initial horrors, I realized we had no choice.
It's like this: you can't call your conveyance a taxi in London unless it's a proper Black Cab driven by an overweight opinionated loudmouth with bad dress sense who happens to have taken an examination in London geography so's he can pad the meter all the better by taking elaborate "short cuts" that happen to . . .
I'll stop foaming and get on with it.
This is why private hire cars other than Black Cabs are referred to as minicabs. How the name got going, I dunno. I don't care, either.
The ones you get by day are sensible enough. Elderly vehicles, driven by mild-mannered gentlemen, generally, turning a few extra quid to blow on the horses.
But when you order a minicab for any hour after midnight, what you get is a vehicle that defies the laws of physics driven by a manic khat-addled West African space cadet who regards speed limits as an affront to his manhood. These guys can do things with a twenty-year-old Datsun with a dodgy gearbox that challenge any preconceptions you may have had about light-speed limits and the interpenetration of solid objects. All while keeping up a three hundred word-a-minute monologue on—and I have heard all these while praying for deliverance in the back of a minicab while steaming drunk in the wee hours of a Sunday morning—Why His Girlfriends Don't Understand Him, Whether It Is An Immoral Act To Trap Or Poison Mice, Why We Bother To Eat When All We Do Is Shit It Out, I could go on.
Tonight's was no exception.
I'm hazy on the details, so let me give you the Generic After-Midnight Minicab.
The whole stands upon four bald tires. These things violate accepted notions of topography by actually having negative tread; they're folded through hyperdimensional space so as to have absolutely no grip on the road. Engineers looking for frictionless bearings are wasting their time, just run your machine on four minicab tires and perpetual motion will ensue. This is probably how they get from place to place, actually, without apparently charging enough money to keep the vehicle in fuel and the driver in both food and the heroic amount of khat he uses to get him through the night without sleeping, eating, visiting the lavatory or stopping to inhale during his monologue.
The bodywork may have had paint on it at some point. Now, though, it's coated in something that looks like the enamel off an octogenarian smoker's teeth, set off with bright-metal scratches and dents and prodigious amounts of rust. But for the strength of the bonds in Iron Oxide, it'd fall apart when you looked at it.
Inside, it's worse. Strange dusts arise from the stuff the seats are made of. I shall not dignify it with the word "upholstery." It's imitation leather as made by a man with no feeling in his arse or hands and who'd never seen leather to boot. It's got little sphincter-shaped cigarette burns in it that fart stale gusts of dusty air when you sit on the seats. The front seats have got those bead-cover things on them, it's practically a bylaw, and there's always some elaborate ornament in shiny gold-foil and plastic hanging from the rear-view mirror.
I daren't speculate about the engine. There's probably some kind of eldritch horror in there that . . . oh, it's scary. It either makes an emphysemic rhythmic wheeze or no noise at all. It almost, but not quite, forms intelligible words when it's ticking over. Sort of "bloodbloodblood . . . hororoorooroororr . . . manglemanglemangle . . ." and this is the petrol ones. The diesels are all that and more, but with a basso-profundo style.
"About what I expected," said Rowen.
"Quit whining," said Bobby. "We're off to catch a bloody big fish."
"Indeed," I said, and improvised a little on the old Greenland Whaler's shanty with the theme of "we are bound out to Wandsworth, the pike-fish to kill . . ."
"Where to?" asked the driver, "I mean, Wandsworth? Where's that?" He was holding an A to Z to the streetlight and peering into the index.
Well, that provoked a debate, didn't it?
Y'see, the Wandle rises away to the south of London in the south downs away near Carshalton somewhere and joins the Thames just upstream of Wandsworth Bridge. Most of the river is a touch hard to get to and the bickering was mighty. It came down to me and Sheila the end.
I happened to know that there was a spot by the supermarket in Colliers Wood that was accessible, deep and relatively slow-flowing and—this is important, given that we were dealing with a minicab driver who could be relied on to have only a limited grasp of which planet he was on, let alone what street he was in—could be reached by simply driving down the A24, which we happened to be standing on at the time.
Sheila maintained that a monster fish of the Pike's vital statistics would need deep water, which meant we should be going to the confluence of the Wandle and the Thames next to the euphemistically-named "solid waste transfer station."
Now, I'll allow as she had a point. Everywhere more than about a hundred meters from where the Wandle flowed into the Thames, it was no more than about knee deep. Which means that a fish of the Pike's size, which would draw about two feet of water, would face something of a problem going about its lawful occasions without having small boys on the river banks pointing and throwing things at it. Most undignified.
"But Sheila," I said, declaiming for the benefit of the crowd, "them waters are tidal. Pike's a freshwater fish. Well-known fact."
"What of it? Fresh water's all very well, but if there's not enough of it, the fish can't swim in it."
"Come on," I said, "This is biology we're talking here. Only one fish, no, I tell a lie, two fish pass from fresh water to salt like that. Salmon and eels. Not"—and I knew I was turning over an ace here—"a pike. It'd drown." I could swear that a pike would violate the laws of physics, but not its essential fishiness. That was asking me to believe too much.
I shall here excise, for reasons of space, the drunken shouting match that ensued on the subject of whether a fish could be truly said to "drown." Does an animal that breathes water really drown, which is how you die when you try to breathe water when you can't? Or can you only drown a fish in air?
Hairs were split, logic chopped and the argument liberally salted with obscenity. Lights started to come on in the neighborhood. Net curtains twitched.
No doubt various minds, roused from their well-earned rest, started on that train of thought that eventually leads to the police being called to these idiots who were discussing piscine biology, semantics and etymology at the top of their voices at two in the morning.
Eventually the taxi driver got impatient. "Where we goin'?" He was leaning out of the window and occasionally spitting something we didn't want to know about in the gutter.
"Collier's Wood," said Hudson, and got in the front seat. The rest of us crammed into the back seat, none of us small, and Sheila in the middle complaining that she couldn't reach the ashtrays.
"Dogends out the window, guys," said the driver. We were cool with that. To drunks at two in the morning, the world is an ashtray with infinite capacity.
"Right," said Bobby. "If you philosophers are done bickering?"
We assented that we, in fact, were prepared to continue this all night but were content to do so during our progress to the locus in quo.
"Fine. Driver, straight ahead until I tell you otherwise. Colliers' Wood."
"Right, chief," said the driver.
What followed is a sort of blur. For the bits where I wasn't wincing, I was greyed out as the acceleration pressed all the blood out of my eyeballs. Between those conditions I passed through a flicker of quantum states of abject terror; I was watching the world through the distortion of severe drunkenness, so any given scene needed a moment or two to imprint on my brain.
The next clear memory I have is of the driver saying, "Okay, here's Collier's Wood. Where do you want dropping?" We were, at this point, orbiting the gyratory thing that they have there at about three hundred miles per hour. Fairly sedate as these things go.
I looked around, found the spot, and pointed. "Over there," I said, "down by the river there. Close as you can get."
Well, how was I to know how literally he'd take me?
We bounced over the kerb and into the long grass. A vehicle such as our trusty steed for the night, the generic nighttime London minicab, need not be concerned by mere unevenness of traction. The roads of South London will do more to the unwitting suspension than any mere off-road excursion in pursuit of fish. No, the difficulty arose from the interaction of four essential principles of physics: inertia, momentum, balance, and friction.
We had a great surfeit of the former two—more than answered our purposes, in fact—and a great want of the latter. That our driver was out of his gourd on something as yet unidentified added to our distress.
Even sober, little of the detail would remain with me. I have a vague memory of our driver hauling on his handbrake to stop the car, and wedging his elbow into Hudson's ribs. Big mistake. I have a slight hint, somewhere in the confused spin and jolt of getting my face, cigarette and all, mashed into the window resulting in a nasty burn to the nostril that troubled me for days after.
The next clear memory that surfaces is of climbing out of the car, shaken and nauseated.
"Bollocks." I was not at my witty best. Bollocks is a versatile word. As well as being a choice epithet of disgust, amazement, scorn, horror and, suitably modified, approval.
Whatever. A pretty situation we were faced with, albeit not of our making. Friend driver had decided to drop us exactly where we'd asked for, by the river. To do this he'd had to mount the kerb, drive across the pavement, drive over a coping-stone that separated pavement from grass riverbank, and then, having applied what passed for brakes, he skidded and spun the car across fifteen yards of rain-wetted grass, leaving a worms-track of tangled black swatches of mud that gleamed in the orange light of the streetlamps like long, black, oily things.
Hudson retrieved his tackle box from the boot of the cab, and absolutely did a first-class doubletake. He then proceeded to turn to jelly with laughter.
God help us all, I thought, if Bobby's so drunk he didn't notice that until now . . .
Sheila got out. She'd gone an interesting shade of green.
Patrick paid the driver. Me, I'd have rewarded him with a boot for that performance, but I was feeling a bit delicate for casual violence.
"We're going to have to sort this out," said Rowen.
"Sort what out?" I demanded. "He drove it here, he can drive the bloody thing out." I had visions of—well, they turned out pretty bloody accurate.
The driver started his eldritch conveyance up again, threw it into reverse (with the grinding sound a vehicle makes when it hasn't got a functioning clutch) and attempted to reverse back out the way he came. The wheels spun, the mud flew, the minicab sank into the mire and a great rooster tail of sticky black clay, bits of proto-fossil dog turd and clods of grass left Welch covered in it. He tried to duck out of the way, slipped, fell, and got covered worse.
Out pops the driver's head. "Can you give me a push, lads?"
Sheila stared at him, but there are some things that are just hardwired into the male psyche. Helping a motorist in distress is one of them. Someone asks you to help push a car, you do it. Why? I have no idea. No doubt there's a paleoanthropologist out there even now explaining what use this was on the mean trails of Olduvai Gorge.
We braced up and began to shove. Fortunately, fashion that year ran to stout boots rather than the runners that had been the thing until shortly before. No doubt against the possibility that a mountain might spring up in a pub while you were drinking there, or something. As it was, we were heaving against a dead weight while trying to get a grip on wet grass that wasn't so much growing there as floating in a soupy sort of clay. In Nike airs, we'd have been completely buggered.
We start to push. The car moved. Friend driver, who no one had thought to instruct in the matter of selecting a higher gear, or applying the power slowly or any of the other wise things one does when stuck in the mud, floored it.
Not just Patrick then. Oh, bloody brilliant. Mud absolutely everywhere: Had the Predator from the film of the same name showed up just then, he'd have wondered where everyone was.
Sheila, untouched because she'd been standing to the side like a sensible person, started singing "Oh Mammy." Hudson was now hysterical, laughing so hard he'd dropped to his knees in apoplexies of mirth and looked in serious danger of humor-induced double incontinence.
Patrick and I were steaming gently in near-homicidal rage.
And the cab? It had sprung free of the mud like a lemur from hot soup, hurtled back the way it had come in a spray of mud, and was now half-on, half-off the pavement while its offside rear wheel rolled away in the general direction of Morden.
"You, pal, are on your own," I said, glaring at the driver and reaching for my cigarettes.
As one, we turned toward the dark waters of the Wandle.
If ever there was a river no one was going to write poetry to or about, it was the Wandle. London's rivers have, over the years, become for the most part glorified storm drains. Roofed over for much of their length and largely the scene—where open to the sky—of unofficial household waste disposal. Shopping trolleys, mostly, for no reason I have ever been able to discern. The urban fisherman must resign himself to losing tackle from time to time.
The river in question was at low tide at the time, no more than a foot deep. The Wandle is one of the few of London's rivers that is more open to the air than bricked-over. It is largely knee-deep where it runs through Colliers' Wood, where we lay this night's scene. It has a few deeper spots and is, isolate incidents of urban detritus apart, relatively clear above the carpet of weeds.
Not that we could see any of that at that ridiculous hour in the morning. What we could see was a faintly rippling ribbon of black, highlighted here and there with the orange glare of the sodium streetlight.
"What now?" I asked.
Hudson, grunting briefly while he hefted his tackle, looked at me like I was a blithering loon. A bit rich from him, I thought.
"I believe we're here to catch a fish," said Sheila.
"Bloody big fish," Bobby agreed.
"Sure," I said, "but what, exactly is the next step in the detailed plan you have for catching that fish?"
Hudson gave me that look again. "Find a good peg," he said.
A good peg. The term got extended from match angling—you fish from a peg drawn by lot. A lot of commercial fisheries actually build little piers at peg sites for the comfort and convenience of the paying angler.
The Wandle, however, is not so equipped. The National Rivers Authority is hard put to it to keep the stream flowing, let alone erect conveniences of any kind. The nearest one gets to it is a narrow dirt path for south London's domestic dogs to relieve themselves on.
Patrick raised an eyebrow. No doubt the dialect is different in New Zealand, or he was just being slow on the uptake. "A good peg?"
"Can't fish here," said Bobby, "too noisy. Scare the fish away." With which words he set off into the dark, away from the noise and traffic downriver.
"Strikes me," said Patrick, "that anything the size of the Wandle Pike isn't going to be worried by a bit of traffic noise."
"No," I said, "it's not. What is he up to?"
Rowen was quicker on the uptake. "Well, he's just gone off into the dark on a slippery wet path, carrying an unbalanced load, next to running water, while drunk."
The penny dropped. "Ah, in other words," I said, before being rudely interrupted by the crash of the tackle box, a thud and a splash, "Hudson's being Hudson again."
"Something of a record, there," said Sheila, over the distant sounds of floundering and profanity, "not more than ninety seconds."
"We'd better go and see what's up," said Patrick. I can still see that grin, gleaming in the darkness. What he actually meant was to embark on Stage One in the Approved Manual of First Aid for Drunken Males: Mockery of the Afflicted.
Traditionally, when venturing into the dark to rescue a fallen comrade in a Mighty Quest, our heroes bear aloft guttering torches.
This particular Mighty Quest was being filmed on a budget, however, so we had to make do with the dim glow of Benson & Hedges' finest as we strode, intrepid, into the darkness—spattered with mud, just starting to feel the cold and very, very drunk.
"Bobby, you silly bastard, where are you?"
We found him, hip deep in the Wandle. Hudson had clearly gone under at some point, and was floundering toward the bank, trying to keep his footing in the primal ooze and his tackle box out of the river.
"Look out for the Pike," said Sheila.
Disdaining this witticism, Hudson said "Help me out, then." He was too drunk to be really agitated about his predicament, but woebegone enough to have us helpless with mirth.
"Fuck off," said Patrick between guffaws, with all the compassion at his command. "I know how this goes. We reach down and you pull us in. Get out by yourself, mate."
Harsh, but insightful. It was exactly what any of us would have been thinking in Bobby's position.
Someone had to be the sacrifice, however. Being the only person present with so much as a moiety of English heritage, it fell to me to deploy the heedless stupidity of the Sons of Albion. You know, that quality that leads people to climb high and treacherous mountains because they're there, trek across the Antarctic on hamster-back to see if it can be done, and, ultimately, to trust Bobby while he was drunk up to his arse in the river and Patrick and Sheila behind me at all.
"Here," I said, "Pass me the tackle box while you climb out."
All very well, but even without attempting such a delicate maneuver, this riverbank had betrayed Hudson into the drink.
As it did me. Gingerly approaching the water margin, reaching for the box, I was undone. Did I fall? Was I pushed? Time, drink and circumstance prevent me from saying for certain. Nonetheless, arse-over-tit I went, head first into the watery domain of monster pike and forlorn shopping trolley alike.
"Argh!" I spluttered, giving the correct response after surfacing as fast as I could, and spouted river muck from all respiratory orifices. "You bastard, Welch!"
"What?" said that worthy, admitting nothing.
"You pushed me in!" In all justice I should not have made that accusation. It might equally have been Rowen. Or, in fairness, no one. But my dander was well and truly up, and Patrick got it with both verbal barrels, at full volume, dwelling in some detail on his character, ancestry, diet, sexuality and personal load-out of assorted microorganisms of a venereal character.
I record here, with neither pride nor shame, that—suitably motivated—I can blaspheme, profane and inveigh with the best and the worst alike. Should the ancient and learned institution of Oxford University found a faculty of Coarse Language, a fellowship and tenure would be mine for the asking. It was in the middle of demonstrating this innate talent and honed skill that cold, immersion, ingested river-water and involuntary acrobatics overtook the mounting range, made rendezvous with the drink and caused me to throw up.
"Oy! Do that downstream, you bugger!" said Hudson and, just ahead of the spreading slick, levitated—I swear, levitated, tackle box and all—out of the river.
I made a few colourful remarks about inbred molesters of sheep from the West Country. Then, pausing to allow the current to wash away bile, part-owned Guinness and whatnot, I clambered out of the river.
A reasonable person following this narrative might suppose, with a weight of evidence and reason on his side, that minus a portion of alcohol and reinvigorated in the general direction of sobriety by a refreshing dip in the gelid waters of the Wandle, sense might have prevailed. Indeed, some half of our party had now been visited with a traditional, time-honoured remedy for inebriation.
Patrick tested this hypothesis. "You want to go home, guys?" he asked.
"No," I said, for reasons clear to me neither then nor now.
"Got a fish to catch," said Bobby, hefting his tackle.
So, we perpetrated the most obdurate persistence in self-evident error since the year 842, when, it is recorded in the Gesta Norvegiae, Olaf the Bloody-Minded, despite realizing his early and radical navigational mistake, pressed on and pillaged and burnt his own fjord.
Onward it was, along the Wandle with rod, line and now-soggy cigarettes.
Naturally, we were somewhat loud and obstreperous. We remained so as we passed along the river to what we deemed a "good peg." This was a stretch of river onto which a row of houses backed.
And who can blame the anonymous householder of one of those houses for what happened next?
I invite you all to picture the scene. A dark, moonless night—well, I think it was moonless. Truth be told, I couldn't have told the moon from a streetlight or, comes to cases, my own backside. Four bold and potently inebriate heroes—I include Rowen in that category, since I maintain that the tattoo on her left bicep alone disqualifies her from the more genteel "heroine"—on a quest to find and slay the dread Wandle Pike of legend.
And such a fish, a mighty fish, a beast of ill repute! Of prodigious proportion, possibly massing as much as a ton, twenty feet long by this date and drawing four feet of water fully submerged. Fangs! Such fangs this fish would have, when we met it. Teeth like dockers' hooks with all the mercy of a Revenue Man's smile.
"I'll need the big spinner, then," said Bobby, opening his tackle box.
How he managed to tackle up I don't know. Don't want to, what's more. I don't care how well he set up his rigs all straight in his box, no man who can bend on tackle while mortal drunk and by the uncertain light of a Zippo lighter is quite canny. Manage it he did, though, and was soon ready with a shortish rod—maybe eight foot—with a big spinner on the end.
Naturally there was some mismatch between the tackle he was using and the fish he was after. If you ask me, there are but two ways you can go with tackle for a truly eldritch fish: high tech and "alternative."
The high tech . . . Well, what you're looking for there is something precision cut from lambent, refractory titanium by robots programmed to tolerances in the Angstrom range, using lasers that focus coruscating, scintillant energies in hellish torrents to cut a mighty spinner. The whole would be armed with nanotech augmented, diamond-edged hooks able to hold the very Leviathan, and fitted with booster rockets to enable its titanic proportions to be cast by mortal arm. Along with a high-tech lure fit to be found in the tackle box of Kimball Kinnison himself for use in his rare off-hours from saving Civilisation from Boskone.
Alternatively, one might opt for something that seemed grown in a dark and unknown metal, studded with ebon crystals of fell mien and nefarious import, humming faintly with terrible energies and inducing mordant and sanguinary thoughts in the unwary angler who bends it on his line. A spinner lure engraved and ensorcelled with foul runes and hooks forged in the fires of Hades and quenched in the blood of sinners. The lure might be bought with a promise of the angler's very soul from the Pandemonium Tackle Shop, prop. R. Beelzebub. (All tackle shop owners are called either Bob or Ted. It's the law.)
Not, I think you'll agree, a tin lure stamped in a mold that gave it the form of a herring with a cheery expression of culpable stupidity and retrofitted with a spinner tail that looked suspiciously like a canteen-issue teaspoon and a rusty treble hook. Such was Hudson's choice of weapon in this imminent duel between mortal man and mighty fish.
Still, he looked like he meant business. Rod in hand, he scanned the waters for a point of aim, and we all shuffled away from the likely backswing. I tried to follow his sight line. Did Hudson pick a spot where he wanted his lure to go, there I wanted to be as the safest place for a bystander.
"Right," said Bobby, his tactical assessment complete. "I'm going to troll it across that swim there." He gestured toward the river. He sounded more competent than he looked, truth be told. The Wandle is not a big river and "That swim there" encompassed most of it.
It seemed, though, that Hudson had superimposed some mental image of the mighty Amazon on the humble Wandle. "Mind out," he said, and took a backswing fit to send his lure—had it the throw-weight of a grand piano rather than dopey-looking tin herring—clear to Warwickshire somewhere.
Me, I have a morbid fear of getting a hook in the eye when anyone casts near me, so I covered my face with a warding hand and only heard what followed.
"Unnnnhh—! " This, Hudson's grunt of effort accompanied by a hiss of line running out. A click, as he flipped his spinner-arm over to reel in.
"Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh—!" This, from Welch, clearly in some distress. He let off a few choice oaths by which he bade Hudson stop reeling.
I opened my eyes.
The tableau vivant: Bobby, rod at the pose of action, hand on reel, looking over his shoulder with a frown of puzzlement. Patrick, his face a very rictus of pain and fury, clutching his groin with a glint of metal visible between his fingers.
No matter the state of befuddlement, there are some scenes that are always taken in with the utmost celerity.
"Play him, Bobby, I'll get the landing-net!" I cried.
"Land 'im and get 'im weighed, mate, this could be a record!" said Sheila, doing rather better.
All save Patrick went weak at the knees with laughter. Patrick was just weak at the knees. I nearly swallowed my cigarette and Sheila laughed to the point of vomiting. Bobby staggered into the river, he was so unable to cope.
"You—" said Patrick, and here I censor his remarks, which were long, loud and foul. The trauma was evidently great: Welch's language caused several small fish to float to the surface, stunned.
Recovering first, I went to Patrick's aid and bent before him to extract the barb that had caught him.
It was just as I took hold that the police arrived.
Now, some police forces would approach this particular tactical problem with helicopter-borne searchlights, screaming sirens, trained dogs snarling and straining at the leash and probably a hail of wildly inaccurate gunfire.
Not Her Majesty's Metropolitan Police, at least not in those more innocent days. Their response was limited to two youngish chaps with torches and stout sticks. They were still young enough to remember their mother's advice to wrap up warm on cold nights, as well, so the stout sticks were buttoned away under several layers.
You, O gentle reader, will be fully aware of the innocence of our motives in being there. The Questing Beast! No higher or more noble pursuit! However, to the sturdy-minded eye of the beat copper, standard issue, Metropolitan police, villains for the nicking of, the whole thing looked as kosher as a bacon butty.
"What's going on here, then," were the words of constabulative tone that announced their presence, along with the glare of a torch. Was it imagination alone that bade it pulse with a blue tinge? Or only incipient walking hangover?
Now, I am as ready a man with the smart-arse response as the next bellicose drunk. But I had been having quite the run of flashes of chilling clarity that night, and I realised that an occasion on which one is, in public, bent to the crotch of a male acquaintance, visibly clutching something that I knew damn well did not look to casual examination in poor light like a cheap tin fishing lure, was a Really Bad Time to have someone say—
"What does it fucking look like? We're trying to catch a pike!" said Hudson, holding his fishing rod at an angle and in manner that no reasonable person could deny amounted to a "brandish."
I believe I may have mentioned, earlier in this narrative, that Hudson was wont to display valor without discretion. This is a quality that is more than mere courage. It is known to the native Englishman as "bottle."
The distinction is clear. Mere courage will take men into battle. "Bottle" has memorably been described as that level of stoutness of heart and thickness of skull that causes a man to address a platoon of paratroopers with the words: "I thought only fairies had wings?"
Hudson had it.
And with those words, we'd had it. With a sinking feeling in the bowels I realized that there would—given a false move on anyone's part—be at least one arrest. Somehow the blatting of the officers' shoulder radios took on a more sinister cast.
"What seems to be the problem, officers?" said Sheila.
Now, I don't know how the New Zealand police react to that phrase, but to the Met it's like a red rag to a bull.
The officers closed in. Fortunately, once they got closer it became obvious that what I was doing was not Gross Indecency, but first aid. The matter of being drunk and disorderly was still open.
Words were had about creating a disturbance in a residential area in the wee hours of the morning. Well, we took that point. It looked like things were going to calm down: even Hudson was doing a crashingly insincere show of contrition. Then—error of errors—one of the officers asked to see Bobby's rod license.
Slight digression, here. Britain's waterways take a certain amount of maintenance to keep them in fit condition for the coarse fishery. Not much, since most coarse fish are much less demanding than salmon or trout. But enough that a modest annual impost must be made on each angler and a ticket issued as proof of payment, to be produced on request to anyone who asks while you're actually fishing.
Stone cold sober, no one argues with it. Hudson had his with him, there in his tackle box. Producing it, he launched into a long, drooling harangue on the infringements upon his personal liberty attendant on being hassled, at a perfectly respectable night's fishing, by "uniformed state goons."
His exact words. "Bottle," as I said.
He went on to expostulate on how the fishing license was a typical Tory attempt to grind down the peasantry with petty and pointless bureaucracy. Or similar. I forget the precise details, but you have to bear in mind that Bobby was from the West Country, where they're all lib dem voters. From such a ground state of political incoherence, Hudson could discharge some truly inspiring rants.
As well as ranting at some length and with much profanity, the suspect was brandishing a long blunt instrument, to wit, a fishing rod.
Friend copper—let us designate this one Copper A—stared in mild disbelief. He had, after all, merely asked to see a rod license, a perfectly normal transaction. He had even said "please" and addressed Bobby as "Sir." It'll be a worrying sign when coppers stop doing that, y'know. I mean, nowadays, when they stop you for traffic offences, they ask: "Is this your car, sir?" Now, that's an insinuation that a) you're a car thief; and, b) stupid enough to cough the job at the first question of a uniformed officer. But they deliver it politely, which is nice.
But what was poor Copper A to do? There was only one thing he could do.
He took Hudson by the elbow in the approved manner for arrests where witnesses are present and informed him that he had a right to silence and did not have to say anything but that it might harm his defense if he failed to mention when questioned something he later relied on in court.
The suspect responded thusly: "What?" And then: "What for?"
"Being drunk and disorderly," said Copper A.
"Fair cop," said Sheila, as sotto voce as she could manage. Of course, Hudson was pretty disorderly stone cold sober.
"Hush," says I, and I gave a sharp tug at the fishhook I was holding. Well, it came loose. So, from the sound of it, did Patrick's tonsils.
Attention shifted from Bobby to the sight of Patrick weeping silent tears and clutching at his wedding tackle, and of me holding up that stupid tin fish that had until so recently been indecently attached to him.
"Go't 'uke owt!" I grinned, bright as could be. I normally sound a fairly urbane fellow—you could etch glass with my public-speaking voice—but at need I have a Lancashire accent you could use to promote the growth of roses. The great thing about which is that, like any thick, rural accent, it makes you sound stupid and harmless to urban sorts like a couple of cockney coppers. I might have been abroad o'nights in London, but my accent was leaning on a five-bar gate somewhere, chewing on a hay-stalk. I could see the filters marked "Northern Monkey" clicking into place in front of the coppers' vision as they relaxed.
Bobby wasn't having any, alas.
"Ishmael!" cries he. (I gloss over, here, the name I actually had at the time, save to observe that fool Hudson used it in the presence of the arresting officers, not something that particularly helps your lawyer.) "I need a lawyer!"
"Speak to the duty solicitor," I said, knowing my stock of goodwill with the firm's professional indemnity partner nowhere near high enough for this.
"Hold on!" said Hudson. "I thought you weren't allowed to refuse a client?"
"That's barristers," I said, nodding in Patrick's direction.
"And I'm too drunk to act and you have to go through a solicitor to get to me," said Welch, taking the conversational ball with a smoothness that continues to serve him well in court.
"You're not his solicitor, then?" asked Copper A.
"No," I said, ostentatiously eyeing his shoulder number—he had just realised there were two lawyers present and he'd better behave, no harm rubbing it in some, eh?—"just a solicitor. Not acting for him at all."
"Is she all right?" asked Copper B, pointing at Rowen.
Sheila was leaning against a handy fence, tears streaming down her cheeks, shaking, silent and weak kneed. She was turning blue due to an inability to inhale. She appeared to be maintaining continence, but it was a close run thing.
"She's fine," said Patrick. "Just needs a moment to compose himself, herself."
Dubiously, Copper B studied the tattoo on Sheila's left forearm.
"What are you doing out here anyway?" asked Copper A, as he pulled out his handcuffs to their appointed purpose.
"Fishing," I said, suddenly and acutely aware of how lame it was as an answer.
"Ah, after the Pike, then?" said the Copper.
Dumbstruck? You bet I was . . .
Sheila looked smug.
She would, at that. Her damned fish story backed up by the law, no less!
I gave her a look to say not a fucking word, sunshine, and Patrick did likewise.
"Yeah, the Pike," said Sheila, not heeding the warnings. "My dad caught him back in the seventies."
"Her," said Copper B.
"Her?" we variously chorused, and "How do you know?" added Sheila.
"She's stuffed and mounted in a pub up Carshalton way," says Copper B, grinning with rather more malice than I thought was proper in an officer of the Queen's Peace.
"Get away!" said Sheila. "How come it isn't in the record book, then?"
"She was a couple of ounces under the record, it turned out, when she was landed the second time."
"When was this?" I asked, mentally leafing through those neurons marked sporting trivia, meaningless, statistical, angling, part of a neuro-linguistic complex that can constitute anything up to forty per cent of a male brain by mass and one of the few unaffected by alcohol.
"About ten years ago," said Copper B.
"Explains it, then" said Welch. "It isn't the same fish." This last, you'll appreciate, delivered with the flat forensic finality of counsel-in-training.
Copper B just raised an eyebrow. "You mean you're after—?"
"The very same," we all agreed. Well, all save Hudson, whom Copper A had well on his way upriver to the paddy wagon by this time.
Copper B shook his head. "Myth, pure myth. You're better off hunting pigs in the Fleet ditch, or griffins in Brentford."
He shook his head again. "Anyway, is one of you going to take this?" He indicated the tackle box.
"Ain't mine," said Patrick.
"Nor mine," said Sheila.
"Belongs to your suspect," I added, with a degree of schadenfreude for which, in retrospect, I feel mildly ashamed.
Friend copper's face fell. He'd have to give an inventory of the whole thing. The whole, damned thing. The custody sergeant would write down every one of a thousand items or so, his ears burning with Hudson's helpful comments on his spelling and identification of items. The sergeant's ears might burn, but their heat would be as nothing to the focused, high-energy plasma of the gaze that would sear smoking holes in the unfortunate plod who brought in this over-equipped fool on a penny-worth charge of threatening behavior.
I like it when this happens. Arrests, detentions and other impedimenta of state repression should, in my view, be larded with as much ballsache and paperwork as the wit of man can devise. Thus are the exertions of state force limited to when they are absolutely necessary. It is red tape that is the stuff of civilization, you may depend on it. It stands, I say, to reason.
Anyway, muttering darkly, our constabulative sceptic stalked off, visibly listing under the weight of Bobby's tackle.
"We going to accompany him to the station?" asked Sheila.
"Nah," I said, "I come out without me harmonica."
"What if they insist on searching his flat?" said Patrick, suddenly recalling the existence of Part I of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act. (Under which, in certain circumstances, an arresting officer can take the suspect home and insist on a search of his premises; it's rare, but it happens.)
I weighed it up. I dealt with this stuff more than Welch.
"Not really," I said, "but it'd be funny if they did. Especially if they got a WPC along to help search."
I have a twisted mind in this way. I can, somehow, spot the most embarrassing potential consequence of any situation (those Dr. Pepper ads used to speak to me on a very basic level). We all turned it over in our minds: Bobby Hudson, watching while officers went through his video collection for "evidence" (the boxes frequently turn out to contain the suspect's stash).
I suppose he could laugh off an ordinary porn collection, even if it was female officers (for maximum points, good-looking ones with huge tracts of land) doing the searching. But The Naked Orchestra? Even Hudson's hide ain't that thick. Just picturing Bobby's response to that (or the one with the dwarves, which I shall not even try to describe) being held up by a lady in uniform, she raising an eyebrow and saying nothing.
Well, the whole sorry episode more or less finished with us going for a wander through south London in the wee hours, arriving at Brixton nick along about dawn or a bit later, waiting around for a couple of hours while they finished messing up Bobby's night, He'd had a nice warm ride, the gobshite, gave his name and address and, apparently, fell asleep in the custody suite and had to be carried into the drunk tank.
So he'd had a couple of hours sleep, while we stood outside Brixton nick, trying to see if we had enough cash on us to get something to wake up with and if not, did we have the energy to find an ATM. I was getting ratty by this time on three grounds. I was cold, damp, and tired. All my cigarettes were too wet to light, and smelled of river—no clear mountain brook, neither—and everyone else was out.
We got through to about a quarter of ten, considerably refreshed—cafes had opened, and I don't think the McDonalds there ever closes—and returned to the copshop to find Hudson emerging blinking into the light.
Fond hopes of serious police brutality were dashed. He'd had a few hours' sleep in the warm where he'd dried out, a free breakfast and access to a washbasin. Final result, a caution for being drunk and disorderly, and when we went in to collect him, a stern talking-to from a uniformed sergeant for all of us.
Which left only getting a brew and the Sunday papers in.
Alas, I'm a compulsive storyteller. Scarcely a week after, I'd gone for a lunchtime refresher after a heavy Friday night, and began to tell the tale again, to a couple of old soaks I happened to share a table with. Little did I imagine how that simple action would lead to, among other things, one of the Magellanic Clouds—the Lesser, I think—and a wing of Valhalla that is conspicuously absent from any of the extant Norse legends.
TO BE CONTINUED
Eric Flint is the author of many novels and some short fiction. He has also edited a number of anthologies. Dave Freer has written a number of novels and short stories. Andrew Dennis has co-authored books with Eric Flint. This is the first time the three have worked together.
To read more work by these authors, visit the Baen Free Library at: http://www.baen.com/library/