Swimming against the flow the river trout’s way is a waste of energy. In the man-made world, energy is for consuming, conserving. Standing on the old bridge, through the clear, clear water, plenty of trout were seen, all swimming against the flow. Nose upstream. No energy saved here. Falling as rain or snow on the heather and bracken moors up in the hills, the water gathered in rivulets, streams joining one to the other, creating the river, the great slow flowing snake below the peaks. It was not always pure, the falling water, containing soot from chimneys, pollutants from traffic, chemicals from factories. There were even radioactive particles from ill-managed processes hundreds of miles away. As it oozed its way through heather tangles, as it dripped off bracken leaves, as it seeped through centuries of peat, it was filtered, strained, purified. As it bubbled and gurgled over small waterfalls and rapids, it was infused with life-giving oxygen.
Water, the clearest of the clear. On this historic bridge that was true. Narrow, battlemented bridge, with bays for pedestrians sheltering from passing traffic. Those on the bridge had seen mail-coaches, mounted soldiers trotting to face Napoleon, marching soldiers going to Flanders trenches, antiquated motor cars guided up the steep hill by a man with a red flag. Others had seen motor coaches and charabancs. The bridge had reverberated to the power of refrigerated fish lorries; Croan’s of Peterhead and Fraserburgh. Under the weight of combine harvesters vibrations threatened to topple its stone lion. Locals called it ‘The Lion Bridge’.
Through all that time, through all those ages, trout had fought and struggled to swim against the flow. Never swimming far. Swimming against the flow was not a journey, it was a tactic. Each had its own hunting ground. A ‘plop’ and another mayfly met its doom. This was the only time, a brief lapse of concentration, a moment at the peak of the hunter’s triumph, when digestion and the direction of flow took more of the trout’s attention. A quick flip of the tail, a wiggle of a dorsal fin, and correct orientation was regained.
Swimming upstream ensured a continuous flow of oxygenated water over gills. Trout survival. In this river, welly-booted kids discovered crayfish and marvelled at them. Under the bridge, at the shallow edges where the flow didn’t matter so much, skulking under stones, hidden among reeds, creatures much like mini-lobsters — in fresh water, not salt.
Further down, beyond the man-made waterfall, with its fish-ladder, trout still made sport, rising lazily to mayfly and grub on a warm summer’s evening, in the shadow of the hill, in the shadow of the imposing castle that guarded the bridge. Downstream to the next bridge, narrower still, newer and not as decorative — no lion, just a time-worn heraldic emblem. The bridge where no pedestrian pressed against non-existent safety bays. Merely an overgrown arch to pass under the road into the dense coppice, with only a hint of sky, cloud and sun above the tree canopy. The dense, dark coppice, damp and mysterious underfoot.
No more crayfish were to be found. No trout swam into the current here, trying to resist the flow.
The concrete and electricity began here. Here the thrumming of generators filled the air. Here were the settling tanks. The smell of human waste being purified was in the air, slight but pervasive. Effluent that poured from the concrete pipes had been filtered many times. Bacteria had digested much of the offensive human residue, no longer containing any noxious, unpleasant substances, nothing particularly poisonous. It ran clear, without oxygen. Not quite as clear as the clear, clear, pellucid water under the old bridge. It retained the air-staining smell. Where there had been oxygen, it had been filtered out. Not enough life-giving gas to ripple sustenance over trout gills. Polluted enough to ward off home-coming salmon at the mouth of the river. Below the sewage filtration plant which the authorities called a purification plant, below this point no energy was wasted. Trout headed upstream against the flow, beyond the sewage pipes, because there was no animal life, no oxygen. Reeds grew, algae flourished but nothing animal existed.
The big people lived here.
Two big people in particular.
As far as John Good Citizen Mersp was concerned, no one else mattered. He was part of them, part of Fred and Mary King, who lived in a three bedroomed cottage, near the river, near the Lion Bridge that Fred walked over on his regular Sunday afternoon walk, where he sometimes paused to look at the trout hunting in the clear water below.
Newly released Good Citizen Mersp was ecstatic. There had been frequent releases before his. Now his turn had come. He might be only one of many, but this was his moment, his opportunity. In fact, he was only one of millions. It had been tightly packed, in the dark. He was still in the dark but after the release, he was swimming freely in a friendly and hospitable environment, like many millions of others. Ejected and ecstatic, his sense of purpose enriched, enlivened. Others were swimming in all different directions. Many did not have his sense of purpose. Many went with the flow: down, and out. John Good Citizen’s instinct was to go against the flow, to strive upwards, ever higher to achieve his goal, his ultimate destination. He was aware of Mary Good Intentions Mersp, swimming alongside him. She was strong and purposeful. She knew where she was headed. She was fit, healthy, full of determination, but this was his one and only opportunity to prove himself. She, too, had a sense of purpose. Like his. As he swam, he accelerated, drawing ahead, shouldering her aside. He was close now. Everything informed him that he had made it. He was energised. Electricity flowed as he buried his head. It was done. That was it. Job completed. Mission accomplished. The link established. The union made. Now, together they could divide. And divide and multiply. Their magic, that could create organs and limbs and flesh. All that was needed now was the tightness of the bond that barred all others. The security of his genes, his hormones, his DNA joining the egg.
It took some time for the big ones to realise. There had been many previous releases, sometimes calculated, sometimes spontaneous. So far nothing unusual had happened. A month passed as usual for Mary King. There were even other frequent releases after the happening. Only after the happening things which should have occurred did not occur.
Sixty days later Mary King, the big she-one, laid her head on Fred’s knee after supper and said, ‘You do know what has happened don’t you?’ Fred disappointed her. He had not noticed. He tended not to think about these things. It was necessary to spell things out for him.
‘The curse hasn’t visited for two months’, she said. ‘We are going to have a son.’
Fred was acute enough to know what the curse was, although he wasn’t sure exactly what happened. It was a very private issue and he preferred not to meddle.
‘I’d like a girl,’ he said. ‘We’ll call her after my mother.’
‘Thank goodness its a boy,’ thought Mary.
Fred’s mother was called Wilhemina Flower Catsup.
‘No. I’m sure it is a boy and we will call him William Friedrich after my father.’ She had been tempted to say that the child’s name would be William Good Citizen King, but decided that was too unusual.
The Kings lived a rural existence. There were red squirrels in the garden, not invasive grey squirrels. Their few hens had to be carefully locked up at night for fear of marauding foxes. Once a deer had visited the garden at Sunday lunch time. Woodpeckers raided the food put out for smaller, quieter, gentler birds.
Beyond their garden, the road was quiet most of the year. At harvest time, combine harvesters could be a problem and tractors pulling great trailers full of golden corn plied their way from field to barn. On rare occasions, their country lane, their rural backwater became a diversionary route north for traffic from the main road. It was then that the windows of the cottage rattled with the vibration of traffic. Only ever in one direction. The southern diversion went by a different route.
Nine months the happening, Mary said, ’Something’s going on.’ There was a tug at Fred’s heart.
‘What is it?’ he asked.
‘My tummy tightened,’ she said, ‘Its not indigestion and the baby isn’t kicking. I think it was a contraction.’
‘Do we need to go?’ he asked.
At dawn, he rose for work, finding her in the kitchen, ironing a load of washing. Mainly his shirts. He liked to wear a fresh, clean shirt to work each day.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ he demanded.
‘Well. I couldn’t sleep. Usually the baby kicking relaxes me, sends me off to sleep because then I know things are fine, but the baby wasn’t kicking and every so often I could feel my tummy tightening when I wasn’t doing anything. I’m sure its the beginning of my contractions. This ironing needs to be done before I go in. Now, go to work. I’m OK. Nothing dramatic is happening. Ring me at lunch time to see how things are.’
Concentrating at work was hard. Several times he had to be brought back to reality from being lost in his own mind. Mistakes were made and noted. Normally his mistakes were rare. When lunch time came, it was a relief. He could phone home.
‘How are things?’
‘I’m fine. Don’t fuss. I got old Sister Brown to pop along and she says there’s plenty of time yet.’
Old Sister Brown’s cottage was just down the road. She had been the district nurse. Now long retired, villagers consulted her, rather than go seven miles to the nearest doctor. There was a time when she delivered all the babies for miles around, as well as medicating the chronically ill and the village hypochondriac.
‘She says I’m on the way. Early stages. No panic until my waters break. And I’ve finished the…’
There was a gasp at the other end of the phone and a silence.
‘What is it? What’s happening?’ he asked.
‘It’s OK. Don’t panic. Just a little contraction. No drama. Just woman stuff. Have you eaten your sandwiches yet?’
‘Not yet. They smell funny. What did you put in?’
‘Well, there’s your favourite cheese and some of that new pickle my mum made. Dad likes it, so I thought you would too. Go and have your lunch. I’ll get back to you if I need to.’
Walking down to the bridge to watch the trout, Fred King took his lunch box and the thermos of milky tea. The pickle was as good as his wife had predicted. It was his favourite crumbly Cheshire cheese. A crumb or two fell over the battlemented walls and trout rose to the bait. A flash and the next crumb was gone. These days very little traffic troubled the tranquillity. The castle continued to loom over the river but a modern two-lane by-pass had been built. Only rare traffic penetrated the small town. Heavy traffic whispered two miles distant down the river valley beyond the sewage works.
Her call came well into the afternoon session.
‘My waters broke,’ she blurted. ‘Sister Brown’s popped round to help me change and tidy things up but she says I need to go.’
Mary King ‘needed to go’ because the doctors had called it an elderly pregnancy. That irritated, insulted. She was shocked. ‘Elderly’ in late thirties. She and Fred had been trying to make a baby ever since they had married in their twenties but it had been a long time waiting. The nearest specialist maternity unit was twenty-five miles away, down the new dual carriageway.
It took few minutes to get home, despite the unusually heavy traffic going the other way.
‘Must be an accident Northbound,’ Fred thought.
Five miles north of their village road end, a lorry had side-swiped a bus. Traffic police closed the Northbound carriageway. Vehicles were diverted through the village.
At home, Mary was ready and waiting. Sister Brown stood in his doorway. ‘I’ll lock up. Just get going,’ as she thrust his wife’s ‘ready for labour’ bag at him.
Little conversation occurred in the car as they drove against the flow, down their country lane to the dual carriageway. Both were anxious. Tension was in the air, especially as her contractions came ever more frequently and ever more strongly.
‘Can you hurry?’ she pleaded as she saw vehicle after vehicle straddling the other side of the road Northbound. ‘Will that hold us up?’
‘No. Thank goodness we’re against the flow. We are Southbound.’
However, there was little or no flow. Traffic facing them was largely stationary. Richard Mather’s combine harvester had chosen that moment to break down, at the narrowest part of their country road, blocking the diverted traffic, but not them.
Strategically placed traffic police were at the end of their approach road. As Fred swung his battered old Skoda towards the southbound carriageway, he was waved down.
‘Can’t stop,’ he gasped out. ‘Wife….Baby…Hosp…’
At that moment, Mary gave a great groan of despair, as one in the last stages of giving birth. He was surprised. She had not made so loud a noise previously, nor was there any such noise subsequently. She smiled happily at her deception.
‘Follow me,’ said the policeman.
Keeping up with the powerful police BMW patrol car was difficult as it cut through the scant traffic going south. The warning blues and twos secured a pathway. The great double doors of the hospital were gained in record time.
Waiting nurses quickly surrounded Mary with blankets and wheeled her inside. Clutching the ‘ready for labour’ bag, he tried to follow the flow of nurses speeding his wife inside.
‘No, you don’t mate.’ A large and stern doorman stopped him, arms outspread. ‘You can’t leave that thing there. The car park is around the back. No excuses. Not even for doctors.’
To the car park around the back of the hospital was a long way. Cruising around in the car park to find a parking space took a long time. Fumbling for the correct change for the parking meter took a long time. With no back door entry, walking to the front door took a long time. Finally, with the ‘ready for labour’ bag still in his grasp, he stood at his wife’s bed-side.
A baby was in her arms.
‘Hello, dear,’ she said. ‘Meet Good Citizen King’.