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Book of the Week

The Independent once said that Chris Yates' Casting at the Sun was 'Probably the best book about fishing ever published'. Read this delightful chapter and you just might agree.

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The Haunted Pool

From Casting at the Sun by Chris Yates

At sunrise, on a clear July day, I set out from home and rode south again, going back to that secluded forest pond, with a permit in my pocket. On the morning before, a fat envelope had arrived from the club containing such a bundle of glories that I had to abandon my breakfast and alter my plans for the rest of the week.
MNot only could I fish the forest pool whenever I liked, my club membership gave me access to half a dozen other waters, all of them containing carp. With the summer holidays fast approaching, I could look forward to nine weeks of piscatorial bliss. However, for that day, though it was still term-time, I would go absent without leave. The weather was fine and settled and the urge to fish was irresistible.
MThe sun was only just above the trees when I reached the water. There was still a coolness in the air and a faint mist sliding across the surface. The pool looked dark and rich with promise.
MIt was past the season of the full dawn chorus, yet I was not prepared for such utter silence. I expected to hear the usual blackbird or thrush, at least. But there wasn’t a sign of birdlife; nothing in the air, or on the pool, or in the undergrowth. However, though there were no signs of life above water, there were definite signals from below. In a sunlit comer, on one side of the dam, little patches of bubbles were speckling the surface. Invisible in the cloudy depths, carp were feeding, truffling about in the ooze. Quickly I set up my rod, baited with a tiny redworm, flicked it into the bubble patch and sat on the bank to wait.
MThe sun rose higher, shining straight into my eyes. It made a brilliant spark of light where the line entered the surface film and, after a few minutes, this spark began to move, trembling at first, then shooting suddenly forward. Amazed by this quick response, I fumbled nervously and almost botched the strike. But it was all right and, in a moment, a wave was cleaving the pool. The cane bent into an agreeable curve, quivering and pulsing in the intervals between runs. It was a strong fish, but obviously no monster and I soon got it under control, drawing it in a long arc towards the waiting net.
MIt was a common carp, the first one I’d ever seen, and I was immediately struck by the difference in proportion to the long slim wildies I was used to catching. This fish was deep and portly with a small head and a pronounced humpback. The colour was the same dull gold of the wild carp, but the individual scales appeared to be a little larger than a wildie’s. It weighed just over five pounds.
MWithin an hour I hooked a second carp and I soon brought him in, a small fish of under two pounds. I had one more bite before the bubbling ended and the fish stopped feeding. Over at the lily bed, where I’d seen the ‘monster’, I thought there might be a chance of tempting something with a floating crust. But nothing moved for my offerings and after an hour or two, I went back to the dam again.
MThe sun was glaring straight down so that the light was hard and flat with little shadow. Yet as I sat enjoying my bread and cheese and a half bottle of wine (special - just for the occasion), I felt no need to crawl into the shade. In fact, I was still wearing a thick pullover as the air temperature seemed not to have risen since mid-morning. It felt more like October than July and I wondered whether the pool was spring as well as stream-fed: that would have a refrigerating effect, cooling the water and, especially if there was no breeze, the air also. I finished my meal and began to fish again. For hours the line did not even twitch.
MAt about eight in the evening the shadows from the trees had stretched right across the pool and the lily pads showed strangely bright on the darkening surface. I had been fishing for nearly fourteen hours and in all that time there had been no sounds or movements in the scene around me. There was a stillness in the air as if everything was asleep and as the evening drew on, it became more noticeable and more oppressive. It was like a heaviness in the limbs, or a pressure on the mind, and it tempted me to yell suddenly and loudly and leap about, or throw things into the water: anything to jar the atmosphere. But I remained quiet.
MI had intended to fish until midnight, but I realised I would not be able to do that now. I would have to leave before dark. Usually I fish until the last possible moment. Packing up is always the most difficult part of my fishing day. But on that evening, with the air seeming to thicken with the shadows, I didn’t even make a conscious last cast. I quickly put away my gear, hurried through the trees and stepped out into the welcome lightness of the open fields.
MTruly, it was a picturesque little pool. Deep, tranquil, but also brooding and disturbing. I had never known a place give me such a sense of unease before and, after that day, I knew the pool was haunted not only by carp.
MI have always had a preference for fishing alone. The solitary angler has so many more advantages than a group - even a small group. He is utterly free; he fishes when and where he wants and comes and goes as he pleases; he does not need to give notice or make arrangements or allowances; he is quicker than two, sees more of nature than ten; the pleasure of success is not diminished just because it isn’t shared and disasters are accepted no less or more philosophically (a bucket of water poured over your head would feel the same whether or not you were alone). I’d lost touch with my boyhood fishing pals and I had no student friends who fished. Nick’s education being more demanding than mine - my chief study was dreaming up ways of avoiding education - he had little time for his favourite sport. There were one or two friends I occasionally saw whom I knew to be fishermen, but I’d grown to enjoy my solitary excursions and I was not eager to share or even discuss my little sanctuaries. And, besides, it is always good to have a secret place where no one can find you - a true island of refuge. However, after my peculiar experience, I had a change of heart. I wanted to tell someone about the haunted pool. I was not going to admit to being ruffled by it, I just wanted to describe the place in general, how I’d discovered it, what I’d seen there.
MI met three fisher-friends in a local pub and, before the evening was out, I found myself arranging three guest tickets for the following Thursday and discussing plans to fish the haunted pool from dusk to dawn. It would be the first time in years that I’d not fished alone. We got down to the water at sunset, coming across the sloping fields that overlooked the dense wood of birch, pine and gigantic rhododendron.
MThe pool looked like a dark moon in a green sky. We spread ourselves out along the dam at about twenty-foot intervals; the Bosun, Guy Anglepen Jones, Grahame Jasper Tucker and me. By the time we had cast our baits, twilight was fading.
MAs before, there was no bird-song, though we did hear the high-pitched piping of bats. No movement; absolute stillness of water, leaf and reed. We fell into that sort of half-trance, that fixed and quiet state of mind that often follows the exertions of travel, heaving a load of gear across the country, tackling-up and getting the baits into the right spot. The calm evening put us into a tranquil stupor and we sat by our rods for nearly two hours, hardly whispering a word.

MIt had been hot during the day and, unlike last time, the summer heat had had its effect. The air was almost sultry and it continued so into the night. The warmth gave weight to the various scents wafting up from the pool or coiling out of the woods - they smelt as exotic as a tropical greenhouse. After two or three hours, though, there was no rising breeze or shift in the slight cloud cover; the air became suddenly thin and chilly and it completely lost its fragrance. There was a vague rustling in the wall of leaves behind us and someone said: “What’s that?” It was probably just an isolated current of air, but I remember that we all turned round to peer into the dark. Someone else whispered: “I’m glad I’m not here on my own.” There was a crack of a twig along the bankside path, followed by another swishing sound.
M“That’s either the bailiff or a poacher,” said the Bosun. No other sounds followed so I remarked that it was probably a fox or badger.
MWe began to make weak jokes about demons and ghosts, but you could tell by the way the conversations ran that we were all rather uneasy. There was an undeniable tension in the air; the soporific atmosphere had been quietly dispelled by a mild but disturbing sense of hostility - or was it sadness? Like dozing mice, we had felt a shadow pass over, like an owl’s wing. So it wasn’t just me. I was glad of that. The place was confirming all the things that had been in my mind. Naturally, I had half suspected that it was I who was haunted, not the pool. My strange day might simply have been the echo from a forgotten nightmare, or too much silence for the imagination, or too much wine, or even intoxication by marsh gas. But these things would have been relevant only if I was unused to being alone in quiet landscapes. As I said, I liked being alone. I also took pleasure in being out in the night, especially in remote places. I had not wanted to be alone, though, at night in a place that felt eerie in full sunlight. In darkness or sunlight, I had never experienced anything like it.MA week of reflection, however, had been enough to make me snigger at myself, to dismiss it as a load of eye-wash. But not now. Not with the four of us sitting through the small hours of a summer night making absurd jokes to keep out the chill and laughing too loudly. It was not imagination, and though there was nothing specific to make us nervous even the Bosun was not happy with the feel of things. (The Bosun was a Merchant Navy seaman whose philosophy for life was to laugh at everything.)
MWhen the dawn showed in the east it was as if a great fish that we had been struggling with all night had finally come over the net. The new day unwound the knots in the air and showed the place to be just a small, pretty lily-covered pool and not anything diabolic. We all laughed when we realised how closely we’d drawn together in the dark.
M“Babies!” said the Bosun.
MWe re-cast our rods and began to take an interest in the fishing again. We talked about big carp and the stories told about them by the club secretary. We heaped as many words as we could on top of the night and tried to forget about it.
MWith four rods stalking round the pool, we guessed someone would hook something. But we didn’t even rouse a fish. We worked hard until mid-morning and saw not a ripple, or a bubble, or a fleeting underwater shadow. And though we said we would return, we never did.
MA year later, almost to the day, I was fishing a different lake, a jewel of a place in the grounds of yet another deserted manor house. The fishing was run by the Sussex club I’d joined and, by then, Jasper was also a member. He was fishing with me.
MIt was a fine, warm evening and the carp were moving well. I hooked a big powerful wildie in a shallow bay and had to wade out to keep the carp clear of a reed-bed. I needed the net, but Jasper was not wearing waders and couldn’t help me. Then another angler appeared, wearing waders, and he came to my rescue and netted the fish expertly.
MAfter we’d weighed and released a golden seven-pounder, we sat down on the bank and talked about fishing. We discussed the lake, then rambled on about other places we had fished. It turned out that this stranger knew about our mysterious pool. And, like us, he had once fished there with three friends. All four of them were CID officers, Sussex County Police, Horsham Division. They, too, had experienced a strange night, though theirs was more eerie than ours.
MHe and his friends fished the same place we had (there was, in fact, no other clear stretch of bank where more than one angler could fish). They began fishing at dusk and, a few hours after dark, they saw a dim glow coming through the bushes on their right. They presumed it must be someone with a torch until they realised the glow was on the outside of the leaves. It wasn’t, said the policeman, a beam of light radiating from elsewhere. It began to drift out from the margins, following the course of the bank and moving away from them. There was no moon, no light and no mist - nothing they could confuse it with.
MIt was too much like a textbook ghost to be true; like a man-sized cloud of phosphorus floating round the edge of the pool. They had a large and powerful flashlight and they shone it straight at the pale column. Where the beam shone on the bushes there was a glistening, tacky sheen - like glitter-wax. It wasn’t like moisture or condensation, it sparkled vividly and the phenomenon made them gasp. Then it faded and they flicked off the torch. For a few minutes, there was nothing to see, then the glow appeared again, over on the left-hand side of the pool. It was coming very slowly under the leaning bankside trees, drifting round towards them.
M“No one said anything, or gave a signal. We just left our rods and ran. In half an hour flat we were back at Horsham Police Station.”
MOf course, he said, they laughed and joked with the desk-sergeant. But they didn’t go back to fetch their tackle until next morning and though they intended to, they never fished there again. They did, however, apply their profession to the mystery. They searched through the police records for the area and, without much trouble, they found the evidence they were looking for.
MBefore the First World War, there had been a lodge house on the banks of that pool. The estate keeper lived there with his wife and when he eventually died his wife was allowed to remain in the lodge, rather than be moved out to make way for a new keeper. Every evening, according to the report, the woman walked her dog round the pool, until one night, for some never discovered reason, she was murdered. They found the dog sitting by the well behind the dam. The old woman was at the bottom of the well.
MI remembered the well, though it had been half-full of vintage leaf mould when I peered down into it. It had been from there that we heard that faint rustling - that sigh of an isolated current of air.
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