I guess in the beginning we were much like any of the hundreds of carp fishing syndicates up and down the country. Just a small group of enthusiastic individuals who had achieved the ambition to run and own a small lake for the benefit of like minded fishermen. Our own little angling Mecca, to do, within reason, as we pleased and in whatever manner suited us. An ideal scenario you may think, perfect in every detail….. If only life lived up to expectations and reality mirrored dreams it would be… well, it would be a lot better than the way life is for me at the moment. But I must not turn bitter, older hands tell me bitterness eats away at you. If you are to survive in this God forsaken place that I find myself you must be mellow and go with the flow. Survive in the mind they say, it has no locked doors, no barriers, it is free to roam wherever it pleases, unlike myself. I digress, so, this is my tale that I have more than ample time to tell. It is a tale of caution, a warning of the human condition that affects us all, although we may well deny it. Above all it is a story of mistake after mistake, of missed takes, of drop backs and b****cks dropped, belting runs and scheming scum, bad behaviour and secret flavour, protein mix and clever dicks, the smug and sure with the insecure, expensive tackle and loads of hassle, of dreams turning to nightmares.
The syndicate had been up and running for about six years. There had been an initial turn over of members as some fell by the wayside due to work commitments, family, lack of success and so on but the last couple of seasons had seen the ten members settle down into a fairly harmonious group. There were disagreements as there are within any group of people, but on the whole things looked very rosy for the S.S (Southern Specimens) as we had so humorously named ourselves. (We had thought the name to be enigmatic and ambiguous. Did it refer to the fish, to the members or to something quite different? Of course this was without its Nazi connections that the initials so blatantly conjured up. For the uninformed this was all they actually could relate to as we had never banded around what they stood for. Tradders said that it reflected on the fact that we were a pompous bunch of tossers but as he said it some three years after it had been voted upon and passed, being a later member, this made little difference. Tom had smugly informed him the only thing remotely fascist about the S.S was the stance he used when weighing a fish with scales and a weigh sling. This apparently vaguely mimicked the Gestapo salute, only Tom used two hands because the fish were invariably so hefty.)
Our 3 acre lake was in good condition and was as pretty as a picture, much the same could be said for the carp that were in it but definitely not for the ten oiks that fished it. Six seasons had passed and the efforts of work parties had transformed the original weed choked, bramble lined lake into a thing of beauty. The initial expense of purchasing 100 six to eight pound carp of good strain was paying dividends, we now had ten different twenties that we knew of and loads of high doubles. In 1992, six years into our ownership things were great. Once again 100% turn out work parties had prepared the water for the glorious 16th so it was with some trepidation and excitement that the ten of us met above the ‘Black Horse’ for the draw for swims for the opening night. It is from here that my tale really begins, from the close season of that year. I shall tell you my story as it happened to the best of my ability and attempt to keep hindsight to minimum and not let acerbity spoil the taste of my memories. Fat chance!
I entered the empty public bar and ordered a pint from the landlord. "You’re late Matt, all the others are up there," he raised his eyes upward.
"Yeah, I know. I expect I’ll get some stick for making them wait." I took my drink and went through the door that led to the dingy stairs which in turn led to the small room that had served as our S.S HQ ever since the syndicate had been started by Tom Watt, ‘Ya Man’ himself and ‘Kipper’ Cole. The bi-monthly meetings, AGMs and first day draws all took place in the room above the public bar of the ‘Black Horse’. It was a part of the syndicate and as I swung open the door 18 eyes of another part of the syndicate focused on me. The members. At that moment I could probably say with all honesty that I got on with all of them. Ha ha! How time changes everything.
"Good of you to turn up, Williams. You’ve been scratched from the draw. We didn’t think you’d mind, seeing as you probably won’t catch anything in any case." The room rippled with laughter.
"Thanks, Tom, but my money’s as good as yours so just reinstate me, ok?" I said with as much wit and humour as possible. The truth can be tricky to face up to.
"All right then." Tom gave me a friendly smile that lacked warmth and friendship come to that. I was not one of Tom’s clique. Tom was the most successful angler on the syndicate water and pretty nearly every other water that he fished on. He was good. He knew he was good and even worse he knew that we knew that he was good. Tom was happiest talking about fishing and catching fish, he was even happier when he was talking about himself fishing and catching fish. He was clever enough to be arrogant in a humble way, a trick managed by few.
"Now then gentlemen, now that we are all here," Tom smiled pointedly at me again as I sat down next to Dave and Tony, "we shall start." Tom sat behind a table with Kipper, the backs of their chairs pinched tight against the wall. The table separated the two of them from the rest of us, the other eight, as it used to register in my mind. These two were our founders. Yoh respect!
Tom continued. "Firstly I would like to thank you all for the excellent days work we had in May. I think you’ll agree that the effort we have all put in is now being repaid manifold. We have a super water, super fish and four years left on our lease, which as you know we have first option on forever. Our insistence of the option being written in as a covenant on the deeds to the farm has insured our future for as long as we can come up with the money. The cost of each ten year lease will be linked to inflation. We will not be gazumped by another group of band wagon jumpers. In short we are lucky men." A few stifled ‘here here’s’ went around the room along with a murmur of approval. It was all sewn up. It had been all sewn up from the time Tom had negotiated with the farmer on whose land our little bit of paradise resided six years ago. Tom just wanted us to be reminded of his great work.
"We are lucky men, but tonight some will be luckier than others. Gentlemen the draw." Excited eyes met across the sparsely lit room, several rueful grins spread across gleaming faces. Next to me I saw Tony cross his fingers and tuck them between the thighs of his crossed legs. A few hopes would aspire tonight, a few would be dashed.
"I have ten pieces of paper with your individual names written on them, in the bag that Kipper has are ten Ping-Pong balls numbered from 1 to 10. I will choose a name at random and then one of you will pick a ball from the bag. Thus the swims will be allocated to each member. To refresh your memories swim number one is The Oak, two – Little Pads, three – Wide Swim, four – The Island, five – The Deep Corner, six – Big Pads, seven – The Pines, eight – First Twenty, nine and ten are The Bay east and west."
Tom let his words sink in to the anxious souls that were bared before him. A quick straw poll would have seen most members willing to donate their wife, girlfriend or life savings for a chance to fish either the Island or the Big Pads. They always produced first week, you could bet on it, the others were not so hot. Six years of fair pressure was beginning to make the water get a little harder. Maybe a bit stupidly our fish had been subjected to hair rigs and heavy fixed leads from the onset and things were getting a bit tighter and we had few places left to run. Well, us ordinary mortals felt that we had nowhere to run, others seem to have the world in front of them.
Tom smiled benignly. "Ok. Ahm… Mike, would you do the honours for the swims?"
"No probs." Mike walked up to the table. Mike and Tom were much like the fingers between Tony’s thighs, like that. Add Harry and you had the big three, the clique, the knot. They were the three that talked together on the bank and stopped when you came by to say hello. As soon as you left they started again. They were the three that caught, the three that fished the circuit waters, the three that went in on bait together, they were friendly but told you nothing. If by some fluke you happened to be the one who was having success they would come around and be very nice. So exalted did you feel that they should grace you with their presence that you normally ended up telling them everything although you vowed you wouldn’t. I guess with hindsight I can see all that, at the time it never really registered until, well, more of that later.
"The first name is, Brian Kipper Cole." Tom smiled at his co-founder who excitedly thrust the bag at Mike. Mike rummaged in the bag and pulled out a ball. "Number three, Wide Swim." Kipper barely managed to hide his disappointment, not a good draw. "Plenty of shut-eye there old mate," said Mike laughing. Brian’s nickname had nothing to do with big fish. Here was a man who, when coupled with a bed chair, achieved instant horizontal harmony, he could easily out sleep Rip Van Winkle.
Mike called out another name. "Second name is Alan Buck. Good luck, Tencher …… you will fish number two, the Little Pads." Alan nodded with enthusiasm, his main quarry were the tench that had grown to six pounds plus no doubt on a diet of good quality boilies. Pads and tench were good news for him.
The draw continued, Tradders got First Twenty so called for the obvious but not a well liked swim generally. Rambo got the Bay East and the I got the Bay West. This could be a bit hit and miss for the pair of us as the bay was right up the north end of the lake and the fish were either up there or they weren’t. Now that may sound like stating the obvious, but it wasn’t an area that the fish seemed to patrol through, even in summer you could sit up the bay and not see a carp for days.
Tension was mounting for the five members that were left, especially as the two best swims were still in the bag. Then it happened, Ya Man Tom Watt pulled the Island, the jammy bastard.
"Well done Tom you’ve got the hot swim," shouted Rambo in a voice that was laced with just a hint of sarcasm.
Tom’s face clouded momentarily as he saw a hidden thrust to Rambo’s comments. He threw the ping-Pong ball with the magic number 4 on it straight to Rambo who caught it.
"Not so hot is it?" Asked Tom defiantly.
Rambo lowered his head slightly into the chest of his camouflage jacket that he wore everywhere, probably including his bed, and shook his head. For a second I struggled to grasp the implications of this odd piece of happenstance and then it clicked. Rambo had thought that the draw was rigged, he had actually accused, admittedly subtly (a real culture shock that must have been, and a first for him) that Mike had taken a ball that had been heated up prior to the draw so as to give Ya Man the best swim. As all this sunk in the allocations continued. Mike himself got the Oak, another so-so opening day swim, and then Harry was given the Big Pads. Two of the big three had the best swims. I glanced across at Rambo who returned my gaze with raised eyebrows.
The last two swims the Deep Corner and the Pines went to the Laurel and Hardy of the carp fishing world Dave and Tony. They were the last two to join the syndicate. They were young, keen and inexperienced with only a few years fishing under their belts. They also only fished together, nobody had ever seen one of them on his own at a lake. They were the neo-duo. Shy, totally out of their depth in terms of carp fishing compared to even a third rater like myself, they were an easy butt of many a joke that went around our little club. I could well remember when I had been like them and at times when things were going hideously wrong I thought that maybe I still was. Consequently I gave them more time of day than many of the others and was therefore the closest thing the pair of them had to a friend within the syndicate. I knew that they had left the seat beside themselves for me. No one else would have sat there, no one had.
I smiled at the pair of them in turn. "Not a bad draw, boys. Not bad at all."
Tony took his left hand out between his legs. His hand was white, he shook it vigorously. "Bloody hand’s gone to sleep," he explained sheepishly.
"So, gentlemen," said Tom, "that concludes the draw for the first round of the ’93 S.S syndicate platter and here is the trophy that you will all be competing for." To mute surpass Tom produced an expensive looking silver plate. "This is the trophy that will be given by myself to the member who catches the most verified twenty pound carp this season." Murmur, murmur. This had taken us completely aback. Tom continued, "nobody else has been party to this, it is something that I have taken upon myself alone. If the rest of you are gracious enough to support me I hope it can become an annual event and the winners name will be inscribed on the cup yearly."
He passed the trophy around. I gazed at it. The Tom Watt Twenty Trophy was the legend engraved on the side. "Rolls off the tongue nicely," I said to Tony.
"Umm. Especially if Tom Watt takes the Tom Watt Twenty Trophy two times."
"Tremendous," said Dave.
"I take it that you’ll be competing as well Tom." I asked full knowing the answer.
"Of course," smiled Tom.
"Better put his bloody name on it now," said Tradders. The rest of us laughed. Tom smiled benignly and as I looked at his handsome rugged face beaming away under an onslaught of sycophantic praise it suddenly dawned on me that I didn’t like him. All this time it had been staring me in the face, here was a conceited, small time megalomaniac and I hadn’t even realised it. Until now.
Now you may think it was jealousy that drove me to this conclusion. I can assure you that it wasn’t, well only 50% of it was jealousy, he just suddenly irritated me. His mannerisms were all so clear to me now as if a fog had lifted from my perception, the false humility, the subtle put downs and scoffing all done so inoffensively and, the galling part, all backed up by the unarguable ultimate royal flush hand. The bastard was better at carp fishing than the rest of us.
After a few questions about the trophy and other minor items the meeting broke up. We would reassemble on the 15th of June on the lake and not before. We had a strict rule of pre-baiting in the close season. You couldn’t. Tom was adamant on it as were Harry and Mike. The rule had never been changed although some of the members had half-heartedly tried from time to time.
As we straggled out of the room I noticed Dave start to talk to Tom and Kipper while picking up the draw ping-pong balls with casual disinterest and distraction. I carried on down the stairs into and straight out of the pub and started to wander down the road towards my car. Just as I got to it Rambo appeared alongside me, he was slightly out of breath. He had run to catch me before I left. My mind tumbled as to why he had made this effort to talk to me. We had hardly done more than pass the time of day for the six years we had known each other. I must admit I had always found Rambo an odd ball, what with his military clothing, jack boots and tattoos. Maybe if I’m honest I found him a bit frightening, he was after all, about 15 stone arranged in a 6’4" muscular inverted pyramid. The boy had shoulders.
"Yes," I said awkwardly. This wasn’t going to be easy for both of us.
"Look… umm. Look. You’ve got the Bay West right?"
"Right," I said and nodded slowly.
"And I’ve got the Bay East."
"Yeaahhsss." I said even slower, realising immediately that I was sounding like some kind of moron.
"Well….Look. How would you like to come in on bait with me?"
I don’t know whether I actually physically reeled or not but I certainly did mentally. Rambo. The Rambo, well not THE Rambo, but Rambo, the loner, asking someone else and even more incredulously that someone else being me to come in on bait with him? To be frank I’d have been less shocked if he’d have asked to bugger me in the back of my car there and then.
"Well… I….." I answered masterfully.
"Come on. What have you got to lose? I’m a better angler than you. More experienced."
He was right. "Yeah. Fair comment, but why? With me? What will you get out of it?"
"Look Williams. We’re going to be fishing the bay together. They might be in there or they might not. One bait in the same general area must be better than two. If they get on it we might slaughter them and….." He looked away. I wondered what the hell was coming next, absurdly my brain decided to addle and think irrationally. Maybe he was going to declare his undying love for me.
"And besides you don’t seem a bad sort of bloke. Someone I could trust. Someone who could keep a secret." He turned and focused me straight in the eye. Jesus this was it. "I want me and you…" Bloody hell, "to prebait."
Relief! My mind cleared and with it my homophobia. I puffed out my cheeks, "Ummm, what…."
"Come on Williams let’s go for it. Live on the edge for once in your life. Think of the look on that smug f***er’s face if we catch more than him," said Rambo getting more and more animated.
"Of course, Watt. Ya Man," he sneered with venom. It was this image that sold me the deal. God that would be great. I made the snap decision that would spell serious trouble. "Too right, mate. You’re on."
"Good." He slapped me on the shoulder. I managed to stay standing. "I’ll be in touch." With that he disappeared off down the road.
I unlocked my car and got in, before I could start to crank the motor over Dave and Tony’s faces appeared in the window. I wound it down. "All right, lads?" I asked cheerily in a facade at attempted normality.
"Not really," answered Dave.
"What’s up then?"
"We’ve got something to tell you." Not another revelation. What was it this time? The pair of them were aliens from the planet Cypry. Dave continued. "You know the table tennis balls they used in the draw."
"Not personally, but yeah," I replied.
"There were two types of balls used."
"So? A ping-pong ball is a ping-pong ball is a ping-pong ball. Isn’t it?"
"No," said Dave.
"Dave used to play table tennis for his county," said Tony butting in.
"Get to the point lads," I said a bit wearily.
"Well, the point is that the two balls that were different were the two balls for the Island and the Big Pads." Dave paused for effect and I nodded as the smell of rat wafted up my nose. "You see table tennis balls come in three different grades, one star, two star and three star. Three star are the best quality and are used in pukka competitions, they are heavier and more solid because the
walls are thicker. A table tennis ball is just cellophane type material with air in it. You can also buy unmarked balls from places like Woolies, you know just for kids, those things are paper thin. In the draw there were two Rizla balls and eight three stars. Anyone, especially Mike could easily tell the two good swim balls just by squeezing them with his thumb. They would press in much easier."
"So the draw was rigged," I said with brilliant insight.
"The draw was rigged. Harry and Tom won, with Mike’s help."
"You’re absolutely sure about this?" I asked, hoping that they were. Some deep perversity wanted me to believe that the big three were just plain cheats.
Dave confirmed. "Dead positive. It’s too much to be a coincidence. The thing is what do we do about it?"
"You could always go and slash Tom’s tyres for a start. I expect it’ll make you feel better. Look I’ve got to go, don’t tell anyone else. I’ll be in touch. Ok?" I said echoing the parting phrase that had been Rambo’s.
The pair nodded. This was all getting a bit heavy. I drove off home with a head full of thoughts that baffled and bemused me and which continued to baffle and bemuse me as I lay in bed. Sleep did not come easy that night. The cosy syndicate was sprouting a few warts. Little did I know that evening that this was just the beginning. For the S.S, to paraphrase Sir Winston, it was the beginning of the end.
Mark Cunnington – www.carpbooks.com