Pike and marriage

  Last century, in Finland, farmers were so poor they ate roach. Bream were a popular, or common, food in rural Sweden; there are poems and songs about catching them in their spawning time - they cannot at any rate taste as bad as roach. Perch were and remain a delicacy, found in the best fish restaurants. But when I was poor and hungry in the Swedish backwoods, I ate pike.

Three or four days a week, I would cycle up the vicious dusty hill that led into the woods above my girlfriend's home town. I had a solid fibreglass rod around five feet long, mineral green with white streaks in it, whose brass wire rod rings were lashed on with lumpy twine. With it came a closed face reel from which stiff coils of 20lb line sprang out. The outfit cost twelve pounds, which meant I could afford to change the line to something limper and less frightening. Otherwise, that tackle was all I had for months.

On hot days the beautiful desolate scent of pine clung to my fingers. I would fish round one shore of a lake in the forest. Often I was the only person there; perhaps the only human for a mile. If I caught one fish, it was supper for all of us. Fishing was the only way I could contribute anything to the economy of my girlfriend's family. She was working in the paper mill; but I could not get a work permit. I could have left her to get on with her life. Instead I stayed, and went fishing.

The countryside round the town of Lilla Edet has been combed by glaciers from North to South. Parallel valleys ran through the granite; in the deepest and broadest of these ran the huge Göta river which drains Lake Vänern, one of the largest in Europe; in the hills to the East, lay a chain of deep, clear lakes. They were clearer than they should have been, because of the acid rain. The furthest upstream was in fact completely dead: you could see thirty or forty feet into depths coated with white algal slime. Nothing else lived to cloud the water. But two lakes down the chain, by the bathing place for Lilla Edet, was a lake whose depths were still a deep humus colour, whose margins were full of water lilies and whose weedbeds were full of pike.

There must have been other fish there. The hardware shop in town sold red and white plastic floats for perch fishing: sturdy, buoyant devices which even the most determined perch found hard to pull under. Anyway, I hated worms, and I soon switched to spinning. Much of the lake was inaccessible. The Eastern shore fell out of the forest in a broken line of granite cliffs ten or twenty feet high and a mile long. It could only be approached by boat. At each end, it was cut off from the rest of the shore by the bogs and streamlets which linked the chain of lakes. But the accessible, Western side of the lake was rounded, and scalloped with bays between seamed granite promontories. Within the seams were drifts of crunchy pine needles, but most of the granite was barren except for lichen. There were paths through the forest for part of the way round, but they ran some distance from the water. If you wanted to fish, you stood on granite.

It was almost always a waste of time to cast straight out. The water there was four or five metres deep. The fish were in the warm shallow margins, sheltered by the lily pads. Plugs were difficult to cast and expensive, so I used spoons: ABU made perhaps twenty different types of pike spoon in those days, in six or seven colourings and weights. It was enough to build a whole speculative universe around, like a fly box, except that spinning was more tactile. I could feel the different ways each lure moved in the water, and spent the hours when nothing bit working out patiently which speed seemed to bring the lure most to life. In the end, I settled on a fluttering, leaf-like motion, using an Atom spoon called "perch-coloured", with one side copper and the other green and black dots mingled in stripes like a test for colour-blindness; the larger sizes had a short red plastic tag at the rear which seemed to make a difference. Even through that terrible rod, I could feel the twittering of the lure, and could tell the difference between the knocks of a perch and the sudden irreversible haul of a pike.

Very few fish that bit at all escaped. I kept my hooks meticulously sharpened, with a hunter's instinct, and these were simple pike. There are lakes in Sweden where no other species of fish is found, and the Hobbesian war of all against all is complete. Ours was not so savage, but the pike were still overcrowded and voracious. Every lily bed held some. Almost every day but the hottest and stillest one could be teased or cajoled into striking. Most were no larger than that they could be coiled, decapitated, into the largest saucepan in the house. Really large ones were fried in fillets.

I cooked them with as much variety as I could, but the struggle was an uphill one. In rural Sweden, potatoes marked the culinary seasons. The gradations between seasons were subtle: at all times of year, potatoes were eaten with every meal; and they were always boiled in their skins. But in summer, you ate new potatoes peel and all; at some stage as the autumn wore in, you reverted to peeling them at the table before eating them. Mashed potatoes were available but only as a delicacy, from the hot dog stand. It took me some months to learn the knack of peeling a scalding potato on the end of a fork; my girlfriend's father concluded from this that I was almost feeble-minded.

Some days, when Anita was working the early shift at the mill, I would rise with her rather than stay in the house and cycle to the lake. The last portion of the ride was downhill, through a meadow, and if I was early enough the mist would still be thick across it, so that, once, everything above my waist was gilded in the pale sunlight, and everything below choked and muffled in white. I freewheeled, as if I were flying through clouds above the surly bonds of earth. That day was bright and still, with the forest calm as a church. I caught nothing.

As the summer wore on, I fished and bicycled with a fierce devotion. As well as the bathing lake there were others on the Western bank of the river, further away, but holding the promise of novelty, but their banks were too densely forested and boggy to be fishable at all. I don't want to overestimate the wildness of these woods: they were logged regularly and broken by frequent smallholdings. None the less, it would have been possible to travel from our end of Sweden to Lapland without ever leaving the forest except to cross roads; and, a couple of years later, a pack of six wolves was tracked from Russia, through Finland and Swedish Lapland, and then for a further thousand miles down the spine where Sweden and Norway are joined until one of them broke off, headed further South, and killed a sheep in a field just outside Lilla Edet.

There were no such excitements in the pike summer. The largest animals I saw were at the side of the road, where hoodie crows and magpies hopped in the dust outside the secondary school. Smaller birds only appeared in winter. The whole world narrowed down to Lilla Edet. One day, Anita's mother took us both for a drive around the coast, ten miles away. There are granite islands crumbled into the sea all down the Swedish west coast. Years later I would have a mystical experience there fishing for sea trout, going weightless in the sunset. But that day's drive, though much less dramatic, was just as overwhelming. The islands are joined by some of the longest road bridges in the world which make huge mathematical swoops across the sea. I felt drunk and dizzy for a week with the excitement of a new horizons

From Lilla Edet, you could only look north and south to the next bends in the great river. The sides of the valley rose like forested walls, cutting off the horizon, though the Eastern side of the river was tamer, with a wider strip of fields. About ten miles north of the town a broad and sluggish tributary joined the Göta river; and at its mouth I lost two spinners and had a tremendous tussle with a large fish which also escaped. This was playing for stakes too high. I returned to the smaller lakes.

Anita's father had few friends in the town. He and his wife had been pillars of the local Pentecostal church and temperance society until she ran off with an alcoholic they were trying to reform. Only one family would still speak to either of them after the scandal, and these good Samaritans were foreigners, half-Danish. They lent us their rowing boat, and I would use it to explore the hidden, southern arm of the bathing lake. One blazing afternoon I rowed Anita round a headland we had never passed on foot, and entered a long channel. At the end was a broad, reedy bay, a place where pike were bound to flourish. Rounded granite like a whale's flank slid into the water at the mouth of the bay, We drifted in a perfect silence until the bottom of boat crunched gently on the rock. Once we had climbed out, silence surrounded us again. We might have been on an island: the hissing of the line as I cast, the splash of the lure, and the gentle grinding of the reel's gears as I retrieved were all sharp-edged, framed by the silence.

"We could get married" I said. She rolled a cigarette of Norwegian tobacco and smoked it carefully. The silence held us like a mother. We returned that night with our sleeping bags and a bottle of sour Italian wine, fetched from the off licence twenty miles away. We lit a fire of dead pine branches on the rock and ate grilled sausages for a treat. The subject was not mentioned again, but we slept deeply on the uneven rock.

Mornings by the lake the whole world felt enamelled in perfection. The water would be absolutely still, and the mist would trap the metallic smell of the water and the pungency of the reeds. Slowly the mist would curl away, like sheepskin being torn from a mirror, leaving nothing but clarity. It was very cold. All the stiffness of the night would rush onto me as I awoke and struggled out of the sleeping bag to make coffee. Every sound was distinct; even the noise the water made as it swirled into the coffee kettle when I pushed it under the lake. You might find the most delicate evidences of rebirth: the shucks of dragonflies and once, lying at the edge of our rock, where the forest began, the whitish translucent skin of an adder. I suppose what Adam and Eve missed most, after they had left the garden, was a world without other people in it.

We returned and ate lunch with her father: boiled pike with dill and new potatoes. About a fortnight later, as we were digging the vegetable patch, she said "You're right. We could get married." And for many years the silence was our friend, until it became our prison, and I started to feel as dried and empty as a snakeskin: by that time, we were living in our own small house in the woods, a little beyond where the wolves had been. But when I went fishing, I would drive for hours by car, to find lakes where I could fish for trout. I don't think I have ever caught or eaten pike since, but even now, twenty years later, I still buy the grey, recycled products of the Edet paper mill, to the horror of my present wife.

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