The water is very cold and powerful, running strongly past my boots as though trying to sweep away my feet. I am not quite mid-stream. The water is nearly knee-deep.
I can hear nothing but the sound of water, though each step I take makes the sound of the water louder, and includes the clunk of rocks moving beneath me as I struggle for footing.
It is dark and cold. Sunrise would have been half an hour ago, but I am in a deep valley and though the sky is light above me, very little of it is penetrating this far. The trees reach to each other from the banks, and though they do not touch, their canopies also restrict the dawn light.
Dave is ahead of me, a long way ahead I hope. We tossed for the lead, as we always do. This morning he won, so went ahead along the river bank, keeping away from the water as much as possible so as not to alarm or alert the trout. I sat for a quarter of an hour before I started fishing.
Above the water of the river is a second river, invisible. A river of cold air, running down the valley in direct imitation of the water beneath. Cold air from the high country to the south, cascading silently to the lower ground to the north. I shiver.
I tie on a Red Tag, the single most successful fly in these waters, on this river. It is supposed to imitate a small brown beetle, but exactly which one I do not know. I cast obliquely over the water, aiming for a patch just downstream of a large rock, the water bulging over the top of it. I feed the line out until it flies backwards and forwards over the water to just the right length, then allow the fly to settle gently on the surface where the water swirls around and around behind the rock. The fly, nearly invisible in this light, sits on the surface of the water, standing on its hackles.
The floating line is being dragged downstream by the current, and after a short while this movement is transmitted to the finer leader; finally the fly is dragged away from the rock, dragged underwater by the current, pulled in an unnatural way that trout recognise as alien. None will take it now.
I retrieve line in my left hand, and tug the remaining line into the air, flicking water from it and the imitation fly, flicking it through the air a few times, leading it on a graceful flight over the water until I drop the Red Tag in roughly the same spot and repeat the operation.
I do not expect the fly to be taken. In this light I have seen no sign of trout, so I start the day simply casting to likely spots, hoping for the best. Trout lie behind rocks sometimes, waiting in the eddies, ready for whatever might come to them on the surface of the water - beetles, moths, flies of all sorts, grasshoppers that have missed their landings and ended in the water. Mice sometimes, though I guess it might have to be a largish trout that could tackle a mouse.
Later, when the sun is higher, I might be able to target individual fish. In the runs I look for their shadows, shadows that betray them though their camouflage is nearly perfect. In large pools I look for flashes from their beautiful bodies as they turn suddenly, or watch them taking insects from the surface, leaving target-shaped ripples where they have sucked their dinners down.
Sometimes I see their rolling backs as they hunt for nymphs emerging from the bottom, their lives surging from bottom-dwelling to mating flight.
I cast again, this time to a spot behind another rock. The rock stands clear of the water, a large, rounded rock; the river swirls around both sides, and in the shadow of the rock the water is actually moving upstream. I try to land the fly in the centre of the eddy, but a slight swirl of air pushes it to one side, landing the fly in the rushing torrent. It sinks immediately, sucked down. I cast again, allowing it to dry before again attempting to reach the same spot. The result is almost identical, and once again I pull the line from the water, air-cast a few times and try a third time. Yet again, the red tag lands in the torrent, and I am about to lift it into the air once more when the tell-tale, a red spot at the end of the floating line, stops drifting for a split second.
Without thinking I roll my wrist, and feel that surge of elation as I recognise that I have hooked my first fish of the day. I raise the tip of my rod and reach for the winder on the side of the reel.
It is not a big fish. I haven't seen it yet but I can tell from the weight on the tip of the rod, which forms a nice, but not extreme, curve. I let the fish gain a little line, the reel sounding lightly as the ratchet allows the line to run out. The trout turns, and I see the flash of its body. Too small.
Rather than tire the fish out, I reel in quite quickly until the fish is two metres from me. I fumble in the front pocket of the vest for the glove I keep there, and slip my left hand into the glove with some difficulty. It is the sort of white cotton glove one wears when handling precious things that must be protected, and my reasons for wearing it now are the same - holding fish bare-handed can strip the protecting slime from their skins, leaving them subject to disease.
I raise the tip of my rod, and the fish swings out of the water towards my hand. I hold it in my gloved hand and tuck the rod under my left elbow. The hook is embedded in the fish's lip, and though I use barbed hooks, it is easy to remove it without further damage to the fish.
I drop the fly, and regard the fish: a brown trout, perhaps around twenty-three centimetres or so... below the legal limit, and in any case smaller that I would take. I lower the fish gently into the water, and loosen my grip on it. It lies there in my open hand for maybe ten seconds, then slowly wriggles and swims away. If you treat them gently, they survive to grow bigger, and maybe more wary of fishing people. I take off the glove and return it to its pocket.
It is distinctly lighter now, and I look at my watch. 8.15. I'll fish on now until I catch up with Dave. He'll stop fishing at around 9.30, and wait for me to fish my way up to him.
Funny bloke, Dave. We've been fishing together for a couple of years. He lured me away from fishing with worms, which is what I used to do mostly, and introduced me to fly fishing. Much harder, much more satisfying. Dave has only one arm. He lost the other in a motor-cycle accident maybe twenty years ago. I never the learned the details of the accident, but he manages okay. I can't think of many things he can't do with one arm, though to see him tying on a fly is something to marvel at. Takes him a little longer, of course, but he gets the job done, and never complains.
'Way I see it,' he told me once, 'I'm lucky to be alive after that accident. What's to complain about?'
I'm pretty sure he used to belong to one of those Bikie gangs, the criminal ones. I hear they run a lot of the drugs and prostitution around here, perhaps through the whole country. He doesn't have a bike any more, but I'm pretty sure that's where he comes from.
He doesn't ever talk about it, and I have very personal reasons for avoiding the issue, so I don't ask. But you get a feeling about these things, and I'm sure I'm right. He looks the part, though, a big, barrel-chested bloke with long hair and a big beard. But he doesn't act it: never seen him drink, or even swear. Not much of a Bikie now.
I fish my way slowly up the river, dropping the fly into likely spots as I go, catching three more small trout in the next hour. Some days are like that, the small fish throwing themselves onto the line, not giving the bigger trout a chance to get at it.
I change the fly to a Royal Coachman after a while, the second most successful fly in these mountain rivers. I think it's the combination of red and white that gets them.
I'm looking forward to a break, getting a little slack in my technique, when all of a sudden I see the perfect trout ahead of me. My slight tiredness disappears, the adrenaline starts flowing, and I'm suddenly the hunter again. It's a rainbow, probably around a pound and a half - what's that in kg? Something like three quarters of a kilo, I think.
He's in the shallows half way up a run, lying beside a medium-sized rock which is casting a sort of bow-wave on either side. I can see right through the bow wave as though he's in a fish tank. He manages to maintain his position with hardly a movement. How do they do that?
From time to time he falls back a little, but then moves forward to take up the same position. I don't think he's seen me, though I am only seven or eight metres from him. Hardly daring to breathe, I cast the Coachman to a spot about ten metres upstream of him. The fly stands clear of the water and floats rapidly down to him. He ignores it, though it passes only ten centimetres from his mouth. I cast to the same spot again.
This time I see him jerk suddenly to the side as the fly passes him... got him interested that time! I cast a third time, and again he ignores it.
I think for a moment while the line is in the air... perhaps I should fish it wet? I land the fly in more or less the same spot, but this time I give it a tug as soon as it lands on the water, and the fly sinks. Once again it passes close to his nose, but with no effect.
He still hasn't moved. I reel in, and raise the tip of the rod until I can catch hold of the fly. I think about it for a moment, then reach for my fly tin. I open it carefully, and survey the contents.
The fly tin contains about sixty artificial flies, cunning disguises for hooks dressed up to look more or less like the real flies and other insects which form the trout's diet.
There are also some designed to imitate small fish and aquatic insects that spend some or all of their lives on the bottoms of rivers.
Most of these flies I have tied myself, which extends the joy of fishing to dark evenings at home; it also saves quite a lot of money, and indulges creative instincts.
I select a brown nymph, which is tied to look like the nymph of a variety of flies like mayflies, for instance, who only emerge and fly away from the river to mate and lay eggs before dying, usually allowing their bodies to fall back into the river as a further source of food for the trout.
I hold the brown nymph between my lips while I close the tin and return it to the top pocket of my fishing vest. From another pocket I take a reel of fishing line, very fine and nearly invisible. I cut about a metre of this line and return the reel to its pocket.
I check on my trout. He is still there, keeping station with hardly a movement of his beautiful streamlined body.
I tie the brown nymph to one end of the length of line, and make a small loop at the other end.
I take my rod back in my right hand and take hold of the original fly, the Royal Coachman. I attach the second line to the first, 15 centimetres above the coachman, using a prussick knot. I check that all is as it should be, then I cast carefully out into the water, not aimed at my trout but just out into the river to allow the line to lie out straight in the stream. Now I am ready.
I tug the line off the water and begin air-casting, flicking the line backwards and forwards over the river until it allows me to drop the double-fly in the right place, ten metres upstream of the trout.
The idea is that the first fly passes close to the trout, attracting his attention, then the second fly, the brown nymph in this case, follows a few seconds later, and this proves irresistible.
A fine theory, but in this case the trout ignores the two flies completely. I lift the line from the water and cast again, slightly to one side of the last position. I stand tense in the water, watching the floating Coachman as it nears the trout.
I will the trout to take it, as though I could influence the result by concentration, but the Royal Coachman bobs its way past the trout without raising the slightest interest.
Faster than the eye can follow I see the Coachman disappear as the trout darts forward and takes the following nymph. I roll my wrist and the rod-tip bends, and all hell breaks loose. He is a well-fed powerful trout, full of fight, and he isn't going to give up easily. The reel screams as the trout takes off up the river, spray flying from the shallows as he threshes his tail frantically. I let the line run out, making sure I have a good footing amongst the boulders of the river bed.
The drag of the line slows him gradually, and he turns and crosses the river. I hold the rod tip high, to allow the line to slide over the intervening rocks rather than catch on them: the fight will be lost if the trout manages to snag the line and break the leader, and my job now is to make sure that doesn't happen.
I take in a little line, towing him gently back into the middle of the stream where there is plenty of clear water. He makes another lunge, and I let him have his head, pulling out line once again. As he slows once more I regain the lost line, and bring him back towards me.
He is tiring, and I sense victory; I take in more line, until he is lying almost still in the water three metres from me. I transfer the rod to my left hand and reach for the landing net held in a cloth scabbard hanging from my belt. I flick the landing net open, and turn my attention back to the trout.
I lower the net into the water, crouching a little, lifting the rod to bring the fish towards me. I maneuver his head into the net, but as soon as he touches the rim, he turns with a sudden explosion of energy, lifting himself clear of the water and throwing his head against the line. He hits the water a metre away, and is off again, the rod curling into a tight arc, the reel screaming even more loudly than before. He runs straight across the river and behind the same rock from whence I had caught him, and then the line breaks.
I watch admiringly as he escapes upstream, reeling in the line. Wow, that was just so exciting! I have lost the fish, but he will be here again next time, a worthy opponent.
I stand immobile for a moment, re-living the short but exciting battle; then I check my equipment, tie on another brown nymph and continue fishing upstream. Over the next half hour I catch some more trout, a couple of them big enough to keep; but I carefully return them to the river anyway. I'm mentally re-living the one that got away, working out what I should have done. Mostly, I should have taken more time and more care getting him into the net. We live and learn.
Around ten o'clock I retrieve my line, intent on rejoining Dave. For the moment, I've had enough fishing.
I make my way to the river bank and move through the trees, keeping ten metres or so away from the water: it is quicker to move through the trees than to wade up the river, and the fish will not be startled.
This river is far from any road, and though there is a fire trail half a kilometre to the south east, the country is very, very hard to walk through. A heavy undergrowth and steep country leave the river in peace, visited only by the few fishermen who know of it, and who are fit enough to deal with the conditions there. It's not a big river, perhaps fifty kilometres in length from its beginnings in a mountain bog away to the south until the point at which it disgorges itself into the bigger river we crossed to enter the valley.
There are a couple of points along its length where the fire trail comes close to it, and one where it actually crosses the river. It is heavily fished for a kilometre either side of the crossing. Dave and I avoid that stretch, preferring the more difficult, wilder sections.
Buoyed up by the excitement of almost catching that magnificent trout, I move quickly upstream, and soon I come out on the broad rocky section on a big bend of the river. As I expected, Dave is sitting on the rocks. He has lit a small fire, and has a billy boiling away on it. He looks up as I approach; we are perhaps twenty metres from the river bank, and the noise of the water is reduced.
'How'd you go?' he asks.
'Great,' I reply. I remove my small backpack, and take off my fishing vest. I put the vest down carefully with my rod on top of it, under a fold of rock where I am unlikely to step on it or damage it inadvertently. I notice he has a nice trout next to his gear, gutted and dressed neatly, lying the shadow of the rock. 'See you did okay.'
I fish a mug out of my backpack, and take some coffee from a small container I carry. I take the billy and pour water carefully into the mug, and sit next to Dave.
'Got several small ones first thing,' I say.
He's silent for a moment. He's often like this, particularly on the river. 'Yeah,' he says finally. 'Same for me. Got that nice one about twenty minutes ago.'
'I got broken off by its twin about an hour ago,' I say.
'What were you using?' he asks.
'Brown nymph and a Royal Coachman,' I say. 'Two up'
He fishes in his pocket and pulls out a length of line with two hooks on it, a brown nymph and a Royal Coachman. He hands them to me. 'Like these, I'd guess.'
I look at them, silenced for a moment. The the reality of the situation begins to dawn on me. 'Wow,' I say, and he smiles.
'Silly buggers, sometimes, aren't they?'
'Yeah. Greedy, too.'
'Now that really is something,' I say. 'I've seen that sometimes with smaller trout - you catch one, put it back in the water and two minutes later you catch the same one again.' I shake my head. 'You'd think they would learn'.
Dave shrugs his shoulders, and drinks some coffee. The little fire has died down, and he reaches across and empties the remaining water from the billy over the smoldering ashes. There is a harsh sizzle and a puff of ash-laden smoke from the fire, and then nothing.
'It's like having seconds with a woman, really, catching your trout like that,' he says reflectively.
I laugh. 'I wouldn't know.'
He looks at me speculatively under the brim of his hat. 'Never had soggy seconds?' he asks.
It's my turn to shrug.
'Used to do it all the time in the old days,' he says. 'It was sort of part of the deal,' he goes on. 'The boys would go out and have a few beers, then a few more, and before long there'd be some chicks join us, or maybe someone would have brought them with us, and it would be on.'
I don't know what to say, but inside I am suddenly, violently, angry, an anger I can't allow myself to show. 'Not really my scene,' I comment dryly.
Dave looks out over the river. 'Nah, I know that,' he says eventually. 'Not mine either, any more. Had some good times, though.'
I finish my coffee and pack my backpack. 'Time to get on,' I say, and Dave nods. I put on my vest and backpack, pick up my rod and move on. 'I'll stop around one o'clock. See you lunchtime'.
A little way to the south of where we had stopped for coffee, the river enters the dark and gloomy area of a gorge. It's never been my favourite stretch of river. Cliffs of dark, shaley rock rise straight out of the water on either side, and the whole area smells dank and unwelcoming. Oh, it opens out every now and again, and there are even a few spots where the sun manages to find its way down into the gorge for more than just half an hour a day; but it just seems an unfriendly place.
There are two advantages to that area, though; the first is that because the water is generally in shadow you can see into it fairly easily. The second is that because no trees overhang the river there are less snags to catch your line on, and much less chance of getting hooked up in branches as you are casting.
Anyway, I fish my way through the gorge and catch two rather nice fish, both browns. I release the first one, but keep the second, thinking about how I will cook it for lunch.
By the time I am clear of the gorge it is nearly time to stop for lunch, and I head for a wide area of beach which I know is on the next big bend.
The sun is strong now, and I set down my gear in the shade of a big ironbark, and head back to the edge of the water to sit on the pebbly beach in the sun, warming myself. Dave will be a while yet, I think. I relax and lie back on the pebbles, soaking up the warmth of the sun.
Despite the noise of the water, less here than on most stretches because the river is wide and shallow, it seems as though I am engulfed in silence. I notice that there is a continuous twitter of birdsong, and I can see constant movement of small birds in the trees, hunting, I suppose, for insects. The birdsong seems to accentuate the silence, rather than break it.
Surprisingly, you rarely see much animal life in the mountains. There are wallabies that move about slowly in the forests, and once in a blue moon you'll spot one in the distance as it crosses the river. Sometimes you'll hear them suddenly crash away in panic, especially in steep, noisy parts of the river, as they suddenly notice you nearby.
There are, of course, wombats in their thousands, but unless you're there in the middle of the night, you are unlikely to see them. I often see possum shit, but I don't remember ever having seen them... nocturnal again, of course.
I sometimes see snakes swimming the river, too, brown snakes, tigers and red-bellies. And platypus, from time to time. Wedge-tail eagles circling high above the river, black cockatoos and gang-gangs, occasionally cormorant fishing in competition. Echidna.
But it's not as much as you might expect forested areas to support.
I lie back with eyes closed, and think how it seems as though I'm the only person for hundreds of kilometres. I know Dave is really nearby, but it's easy to imagine you are alone in a wide wilderness...
But I should make a move. I move back to the ironbark and retrieve my trout from the back pocket of my vest, and my knife from its sheath. I squat by the edge of the river, and quickly remove the gut and the gills, then wash the trout in the cold, clean water.
Placing the trout on a rock, I move back to the forest edge and gather small dead twigs, first about matchstick size, then gradually larger. This is easy work, for the undergrowth is full of bushes, and a proportion of them are dead and as dry as tinder; well, that's exactly what they are - tinder. I can grab handfuls at a time, and snap them into 15 centimetre lengths, keeping them all in line. Very soon, I can carry no more, and I take the tinder back to the river's edge. I take a tiny piece of firelighter from my pack and place it on the dry gravel, and place the tinder over it.
With my knife I cut a green stick with a triple fork in it, and weave other green sticks between the triple fork. I cut some more simple forks, and grab an armful of thicker dead stuff, and take it all to the river's edge. I slit the trout wide open and lie it on my green triple-fork griddle, ready for the flame when Dave arrives.
I have arranged the fire to be close to a large rock so that Dave and I will be able to sit back against it, and I do so now.
From the corner of my eye I see Dave appear at the bottom of the pebble beach. He fishes his way right up to me, almost as though he hasn't noticed that I'm there. However, he stops abruptly, retrieves his line, attaches the fly to the little keeper ring and wades noisily to the shore. He takes his gear to the ironbark, fiddles around there for a while, and returns to where I am sitting.
I lean forward and light the scrap of firelighter. A small flame climbs hesitantly through the tinder, then suddenly takes hold and within a minute the fire is burning brightly and with almost no smoke. I put a few larger sticks on it, and feed it like that for a while until I have a small mound of red-hot embers. Dave fills his billy from the river, and nudges it into the side of the fire. He watches as I lift my green-stick griddle and hold it over the fire, skin-side down.
'Enough there for both of us?'
'Depends how hungry you are,' I reply.
He grunts and sits beside me.
The trout begins to curl on the griddle, and I use my knife to lift and turn it, giving the pale pink flesh its turn in the heat. Cooked like this, trout take on a very slightly smokey taste, though they need salt to bring out the flavour. At home I like to cook them with herbs - lemon thyme, maybe a little lime juice, sometimes oregano or even rosemary, though some people find the latter a little... unusual.
The colour of a trout's flesh depends to a great extent upon what they have been eating. The white flesh of a trout-farm fish is the result of the bland diet they are fed, though I'm told that additives can give them almost any colour flesh the farmer wants.
Up here in the mountains, though, in the rivers at least, trout flesh varies from light pink to a lovely coral colour. I believe this is mostly influenced by feeding on shrimp, though when I look through the contents of their stomachs I find mostly beetles and mudeyes. Mudeyes are the nymphs of dragonflies.
As the trout cooks, small droplets of fat fall into the fire, and these burst instantly into flame, causing small splutters and eruptions in the fire, and releasing wonderful odours which set the saliva running. A good trout needs only a few minutes over a small fire like this one, and very soon I withdraw the griddle from the fire, and place it on the gravel between us.
Dave lifts the head, and the skeleton of the trout, complete with tail, rises from the flesh in one piece. Without looking, Dave tosses it over his shoulder into the river behind. A variety of organisms will dispose of it in no time.
I take a small screw of paper from my shirt pocket, and sprinkle some of the salt it contains on the flesh. I could have rubbed a little into the flesh before cooking it, but I had forgotten to do that. We use our fingers, pulling pieces of flesh and placing them in our mouths, though at first it is too hot and we breath gulps of air into our mouths to cool it down.
'Nice,' comments Dave.
It is my turn to grunt.
The crackly bits around the edges are the best in my opinion, including the skin. I suck at them in enjoyment, and in a short time we have finished the fish.
'Another?' asks Dave, but I shake my head. 'Not for me'.
He fishes out a cigarette, and lifts a small burning twig from the fire with which to light it. Dropping the twig back into the fire, he exhales a lungful of smoke with a sigh of contentment.
He looks around and smiles. 'Bloody fantastic.' The billy is just starting to sing, and I get my cup and some coffee, and pour water onto it. For a while we each just sit there as though lost in thought, which I suppose we are.
Then Dave stirs. 'That first trout I caught, the one that broke you off. I've been thinking about that.'
'Oh yeah?' I respond.
'Well, the soggy seconds, I mean.'
I don't respond. I've never been a great one for talking about sex. Not to men, anyway.
'Its one of the things I miss, you know.' He looks sideways at me. I don't answer.
'I mean, its a hunger, isn't it? Sex.'
'Mmm,' I agree, not really wanting to continue with this conversation.
But Dave presses on. 'It's all very well, this settling down and being responsible and that. But we're just designed with all these urges, these hungers. And I reckon it don't do us any good to ignore or repress them. Tell you the truth, It was lot of fun being a bikie.'
'I guess it was a lot of fun being Atilla the Hun, too,' I say, and I can't help putting a sneer into my voice.
He takes a swig of coffee and a pulls at his cigarette, releasing a plume of tobacco smoke from the side of his mouth. 'A bit of rape and pillage,' he smiles. 'That's what we all need, every now and again.'
He sounds serious. I stare at him hard, but he simply looks into the dying fire, a smile on his lips.
'I also liked the young chicks. The really young ones,' he says.
I've had enough of this. I stand up. 'You ready to fish on?'
He stays where he was. 'Don't get your knickers in a twist, mate. Sit down. I'll be off in a minute.'
I feel pretty stupid. I mean, I just don't know what to do. You can't say stuff like that and expect people to ignore it, but at the same time you can't just get in a huff and break up a friendship such as ours. Oh, I know we aren't particularly close friends; but we had had a respect for each other, and I've enjoyed our trips together over the past few years.
'Trouble is, we're all too civilised these days. A bloke can't let himself go, follow his instincts.'
'You mean, behave like an animal. I thought you had given all that away.'
'Yeah, so did I . But now that I'm thinking about it... well, seems like we've given up too much.'
'Don't be a prick, Dave,' I say, and I can feel my temper rising. Does he know about Julia? Is he leading me on just for fun, to get a rise out of me?
'Dunno why you're taking on like this, mate. I was just reminiscing. What the hell do you know about it, with your poncy house and your poncy wife, all college and superannuation?'
He is still sitting at my feet. I feel like kicking him, really feel like it.
'Look, you bastard,' I say, and I can feel myself going red in the face, and I know I'm going to say something I might regret later. 'If there's one thing I do know about it's the young chicks, as you call them. They're all someone's daughter. They're all innocent young girls until some bastard like you gets your clutches on them... then it's rapes and gangbangs, drugs and violence.' I splutter to a halt. I can't go on. I'm hopping mad.
I know it wasn't actually him that had done it; I know it was some other gang of bikies hundreds of kilometres away and ten years ago. I know people can change, and deserve the chance to do so. But is this really a man who has changed, who has given up that sort of life? Or is he still hankering, as he says he is, for the chance to corrupt and abuse young women, treat them like filth and eventually cast them aside, when it's too late.
I can't believe the way the day has turned out. One minute perfect, communing with nature, hunting the wilds for food; the next minute I feel like killing him, though, as he says, I'm too civilised for that. I lash out with my booted foot, but even as I do I know I can't just kick him; I aim low instead, and kick a spray of gravel over him, and turn abruptly away and move towards the ironbark to retrieve my gear. I hear him getting to his feet behind me, but I ignore him and stamp my way over to my gear. I bend to pick it up, and I feel a boot in my back and I'm sent flying, sprawling into the undergrowth, my face raked by the stiff branches of a dead bush.
I hardly feel it, roll quickly over and get to my feet, the adrenaline racing, blood pumping. I'm crouched ready for anything, facing him, but he's standing full on to me, his one hand on his hip, the other stumpy arm weaving slightly at his side. I feel a stab of fear, knowing that we have crossed some sort of divide, a divide I never thought I'd have to fight my way over.
'You fucking stupid stuck-up piece of shit,' he says. 'You know nothing. You can't even begin to understand. We are men, not fucking mice like you lot, banding together for protection. We are men, and we take what we want and you and your lot can't do a fucking thing about it.' He turns his head and spits, and when he looks back at me I can see it in his eyes. He hasn't changed. He hasn't changed at all.
He takes two steps towards me, and I flinch. He waves his one fist in my face. 'See this?' he says. 'I'm going to beat the crap out of you with one hand, and there's nothing you can do about it.' And he hits me full in the face.
I don't feel it, but I'm sent crashing back into the undergrowth, and there is blood everywhere, and I can't see because the blood seems to be colouring my eyes too, and everything is reeling about me.
I shake my head and my eyes clear a little. He's still standing there, his one fist still bunched. I roll sideways and try to stand, but I can't get any further than to my knees, and I lean forward on two hands, shaking my head. Eventually I get one foot up and on the ground, and slowly, groggily, I get to my feet.
We never did find out just exactly what happened to Julia, just went to claim her body two years after she left home at fifteen. We never did find out who she had been with, who had done what to her. But we did know she was covered with tattoos and piercings and burns and cuts, and we knew where those came from.
I lurch towards him and throw a wild punch. I never did learn to fight, never did learn to harness the adrenaline. Even so, my fist catches the side of his face, not hard, but enough to get him off balance.
He roars with rage and hits me full in the face again, and as I fall he kicks me in the stomach, and the wind is knocked out of me and I lie on the ground gasping but unable to breathe, and the pain rocks in and sweeps over me in waves, and I know I'm going to die without oxygen and I suck in against the pain and roll onto my back, and then he kicks me again in the side, and I hear the breaking of the ribs, and I'm finished.
My eyes are closed, but I know he's standing over me, just watching me. I can do nothing to protect myself. He kicks me once more in the thigh. I feel nothing.
'Prat,' I hear him say, and then I hear him moving away, crunching over the pebble beach. For a while I listen as he moves around collecting his equipment. I hear him walk away towards the river, and I wonder if he's going to carry on fishing.
I have no idea how long I lie there. At least a couple of hours. Every breath is agony as my broken ribs slide over each other. Eventually I learn to breathe from my gut instead of from my chest, and I find I can survive on short, shallow breaths. I know my face is a mess, but that doesn't matter. In the end I try to roll over and get to my knees, but my thigh where he kicked me shrieks with pain. I realise that the bone isn't broken, but there is a huge bloody tear in the flesh, and my pants are stuck to the wound with dried blood.
I roll onto my knees and hands again, my head hanging, trying to breath slowly without using my ribs. Slowly, oh so slowly, I raise myself and rock backwards until I am kneeling on one knee. Holding my ribs tightly I rise unsteadily. I must start walking out before it gets dark, or I'll be stuck here until morning. The temptation to sink back to the ground and wait for help is very great, but I resist it. I must get out of this valley before dark. I take a few paces, and realise that I can do it. I can do it if I move carefully and slowly. Mostly, carefully.
I think about my gear. Is there anything in my gear that will help me? My knife, which is in a scabbard on my fishing belt. I move slowly to where my gear is piled, and I kneel carefully beside it. I pull the belt from the pile, and remove the landing net from the cloth scabbard. Torch, I think, and I search the pockets of my vest for the tiny headlamp I keep there.
From my pack I take a pack of sandwiches that would have been my lunch if I had caught nothing. I open the packet, and carefully eat one: corned beef, cut thick, with mustard. I eat it as quickly as possible, and put the second sandwich in the empty net scabbard.
I stand and put the belt on, and take the knife from its sheath. I move towards the undergrowth, find a small sapling with a straight trunk and a fork at the top, and I cut and trim it to use as a walking stick, to help me through the forest and mostly through the river, and back to my car, if Dave hasn't taken it; he has a spare set of keys with him.
I am in great pain during all of this, and the sweat is pouring down my face and soaking my shirt. I leave my fishing gear, and start back to civilisation and safety. As long as I keep my ribs from moving, I manage to walk without too much extra pain. I don't need the stick at the moment, and I use my arms to hug my chest, the stick hanging behind me. My thigh is very hot where Dave kicked me, but the agonising pain of my first moves has abated.
I move into the trees beside the river, moving as quickly as possible, which isn't very quickly at all.
There is no proper path - too few people come here for that. There are, though, a large number of very small animal trails, most of which run more-or-less parallel to the river. They are overgrown, but they are easier than the remainder of the undergrowth. The undergrowth is mostly fairly light, light enough to push through without too much trouble. Through the whole of the fight my sunglasses, wrap-around polaroid for vision into the river, remained around my neck, held by the neck-strap. They protect my eyes now from the small flicking branches. My hands, though, suffer a bit from the spines that protect so many of the small trees; this is nothing compared to the other pains I am suffering. I am aware, though, of the pain they are going to inflict over the next few days.
I have to stop every now and again, to catch my breath, to summon the strength to go on, leaning against a rock or a tree, tears running down my face. I am cursing and weeping, wondering how I am going to get out of the valley in the state I'm in, cursing Dave and re-living the argument that led to the stupid fight. How could we have gone from fishing mates to murderous enemies in so short a time?
While it is quicker to push through the forest rather than to walk down the river, there are many places where it is simply impossible, the gorge being one of them. Walking up the river while fishing is fairly easy, because you are moving slowly and taking care. Walking out down the river is a different matter - you're moving faster, and you have to be very careful indeed. Easy to to slip on wet rocks despite the felt-soled boots, easy to have your foot swept off a rock by the force of the water. So I take it very easy when I have to be in the river, using my stick to support me, probing the water ahead for unseen difficulties.
Every step is painful, and every other step is agony. Slowly I work my way downstream. Although it is only about four o'clock, it is already starting to get darker, and what a few hours ago was a lovely, sunny river of promise and satisfaction is beginning to seem cold and wet and menacing. I tell myself to be careful, not to hurry, not to slip and make things worse.
I come to the end of the gorge and thankfully move out of the river. There are three other places where I'll have to get back into the water because of the terrain, but for the moment I can move a little faster. There are fallen trees and branches to climb over or under, there are patches of impenetrable blackberry that have to be circumnavigated. There are rockfalls to cross. No, it's not easy country to travel through, but of course that's what makes it a favourite fishing spot. Today, though, it's creating a nightmare for me.
Head down, hugging my chest with my left arm, fending off the branches that seem to be reaching for me, to hold me, to slow me, I struggle on and on. I vaguely recognise the route, recognise at least the major landmarks, but it seems to be taking me forever to escape from this bloody valley.
I negotiate the next wading section, though not without a major fall when I suddenly lose my footing on a small wet rock and fall backwards into the water. The pain from my ribs as my chest hits the rocks beneath me is dreadful, and I shriek in sudden agony, then sob pathetically as I struggle to get to my feet once more. I lean on a large rock beside me for some time before I can go on. I must be more careful.
The next forest section is easier, clearer and flatter, and for a while I make good time. I look at my watch; it is now nearly five thirty, and the valley is getting darker and darker. Even so, I tell myself, I mustn't hurry.
Ahead of me is a small cliff fronting the river, and I must either climb up about fifty metres and return to the river on the other side of the cliff, or get back into the river and wade about three hundred metres. I choose the river. As soon as I struggle through the trees to the water's edge, I see him.
He is out in the middle of the river, lying half submerged, clinging to a rock. The water is swirling around him, threatening to tear him loose and away downstream.
'Serve him fucking right,' I mutter to myself. I move towards him, picking up a fist-sized rock as I do so, holding it like a weapon in my right hand. I am sobbing with effort and pain, but I work my way out to where he is. The current there is tremendous, the cliff narrowing the river bed. He is looking towards the other bank, and seems unaware that I am behind him. I stay clear of him, and circle downstream until I can see what has happened.
His head is only just clear of the water, his arm hooked around the rock. He is shivering with cold, as though he has been in the water a long time.
His right leg is trapped under a rock: he must have stepped on it and caused it somehow to roll over and back onto his leg. It is a big rock. I edge closer to see if I can move it, holding the rock in my hand so as to protect myself if he attacks me again. He sees me. I don't want to look at his face. I could smash it with my rock, the bastard. It would look like an accident. No-one would know.
But I don't even need to do that. I look again at the trapped leg, and I know I could never shift that rock by myself, not in the state I'm in, the state he put me in. Ironic, I thought, and the thought gave me great pleasure. We are none of us as civilised as we think we are, not beneath the surface.
I think about it for a moment, then I deliberately drop my rock, making sure he sees me do it, and give him a salute. He knows what I mean. I head off carefully downstream. I am becoming desperately tired, and it is getting darker by the minute. Below the cliff I climb wearily out of the water, and start once more through the forest. Tired though I am, my spirits have been lifted by finding Dave trapped in the river. I'm not exactly singing, but I am grinning.
It is dark by the time I reach the end of the river where it runs into the bigger river. I have only to cross this bigger river, which is wide but relatively shallow, then a few hundred yards to a gate and my car is just a little way along the road. I wade across carefully and climb the slight slope to a dark and eerie elm grove, planted a hundred or more years ago.
I pass through the elms, climb wearily over the gate and cross to my car waiting under a big eucalypt, where it has been in the shade for most of the day. I find my keys, open the car and sit thankfully, my feet outside the car, too tired to lift them in. I reach across to the glove box to where my mobile phone is. I open the phone. There is no signal. I knew there wouldn't be.
I put my arms on the steering wheel and rest my head on them. I could sleep.
I sit like that for some time, then sigh deeply, which sends a sharp lance of pain through me. I drag my feet into the car and reach for the door. I am too tired to slam it closed, and I have to make a second attempt at it.
I switch on the lights, start the engine and carefully turn the car on the rough ground beneath the tree, edging out onto the road, which is unsealed. I switch on the radio, which is tuned to some music station that Dave liked.
Did you like this story? Or did you hate it? Or perhaps something in between? Well, you can let me know what you thought... email me at email@example.com
I'd really appreciate the feedback.