Read the 1st Prize Winner 2024 - Desire Lines by Marc Joan

 Desire Lines

Marc Joan

When Andy’s dad dropped us off it was early, the sun not yet above Carnedd Llewellyn and Foel Fras and the frost still hard. He stopped in a lay-by and waited, engine running, while Andy and I got the gear out of the boot. Rods and reels and keep-nets and folding stools and a lidded tub of maggots. A tackle-box with hooks and floats and packets of lead weights and a pair of pliers to squeeze the split lead beads tight on the line. Sandwiches from Andy’s step-mum. We piled it all on the grass verge. Then we shut the boot and stepped back out of the Audi’s exhaust fumes. Andy’s dad, head out the window, revved the engine, made another not-joke about my black eye, and within seconds was round the corner and out of sight, nothing left of him but distant gear changes. Fainter and fainter. 
    At school someone said they’d heard Spaz the maths teacher say that Andy’s dad had been driving like a maniac ever since Andy’s mum died. His real mum, that is, not his tarty step-mum. Spaz said he had a death-wish. Andy’s dad, that is, not Andy. If Andy gets a wish, it’ll be a murder-wish.
    We carried the gear over to the five-bar gate and set it all down again. Andy climbed over the gate and I handed everything over to him. Then I climbed over too, and we leant against the gate, looking down the slope as a new day peeped over the mountains and crept across the field. 
    This place: this is where paradise starts. From here you can follow the Afon Ogwen upstream, past where its sister-stream Afon Caseg flows into it, and just keep going where fancy takes you. You can go up to the Penrhyn slate tips and beyond; even as far as the falls and Llyn Ogwen, if you fancy the climb. Or you can go down, down, all the way to Bangor and the Menai Straits. And on a morning like this, for most of that way, up or down, you’d not see a soul; just rabbits and ravens, and maybe a stoat. So to stand there, and look across the field, and know that the Ogwen flowed just beyond the old blackthorn hedge, and know too that in that moment all we could reach belonged to us and the fish and nobody else – man, we felt like princes. Kings. I did, anyway. 
    Like I could command the world and everyone in it.
    As the sun came properly up, the Glyderau’s peaks behind us gleamed bright with the last of the winter’s load. Before us, the field’s frost was criss-crossed with the desire-lines of small animals. The grass crunched beneath our feet. I followed one of the animal tracks, the one which curved round across the field and down into the blackthorn. Andy went straight over untrodden grass to the stile. He left dark footprints behind him, like a long, dashed scar on the meadow’s white face. When I caught up with him, he was frowning.
    “Are you a fucking rabbit?”
    “You were walking down rabbit trails. All over the fucking shop.”
    “Desire lines.” Andy gave me one of those looks he gives when he doesn’t get something and it’s making him angry, so I explained.             “Remember, in Human Geography? Old Pritchard said the proper name is desire lines. Lines made by things going where they want to go.”
    “Pritchard!” Andy rolled his eyes. “Geography! We’re here to fish, you twat. No wonder Tryon keeps punching you out.”
    Tryon’s actual name is Tyron, but he always wants people to call him Tyson, as in Tyson Fury. Tyron ‘Tyson’ Evans, the Boxer of Bangor, see? he says, strutting around like a cock. So people call him Tryon instead, as in trying it on. But not to his face. He goes to some boxing club in Colwyn Bay every weekend, and practices combinations on the other kids during the week. Mainly on me. Not on Andy, though. Even Tryon’s a bit careful of Andy.
    We could hear the river now, and soon we could glimpse it through the winter-stripped trees. The water cuts deeper here than it does higher up, and it runs slower and makes bigger pools. And bigger pools make bigger fish. The Welsh record for a roach is two pound eight ounces, but we’ve seen one in this part of the Ogwen that has to be a three-pounder. Andy actually had it out of the water, nearly, his lightweight rod bending double and me wading out with a net, but it wriggled off the line. And that’s what happens when you don’t ground-bait enough; the fish are still cautious of what’s on the hook, so they just have a nibble instead of really going for it, and then the hook doesn’t properly set. I’d promised myself not to make that mistake today. 
    As we got closer to the river, we trod more gently and hunched over, keeping low. Fish may not be clever, but they’re suspicious, and sometimes they just know when something isn’t right. You’ve got to respect their senses. So we crept up nice and slow, put all the gear behind a bush and waited for a little minute, nice and quiet. Then, while Andy was taking the rods out of their canvas sleeves, I started throwing ground-bait maggots out. Far out, into  the three-pounder pool; into the still, slow waters where fish have time to think, time to act.
    I half-turned towards Andy. “You know what they’re doing in London now?”
    “Who?” Andy was peering round the bush and looking over the river, his mouth pursed into a little ‘o’, a silent whistle, as he looked for the small surface disturbances that mean the fish are getting lively.
    “The county-liners. The shotters. If they need to sort someone, they don’t kill them now. They just knife them in the balls.”
    “It’s an honour thing. If someone disses you, you can’t let it go. You’ve got to change their fucking life. In a bad way.”
    Andy looked at the river, not saying anything. Like he wasn’t listening; but I knew he heard every word.
    “Otherwise the shame of it eats away at you. Forever. The shame of not doing anything.”
    He shrugged, mouth set tight. I reminded myself to be patient, careful; he can fly off the handle, Andy, and shoot off in some unexpected direction really fast. Can’t have that; not today. So go slowly, now. Slowly, slowly, catchee any bugger you like.
    I threw out another fistful of ground-bait. I couldn’t see what was happening to the maggots, of course, but I knew that each one would be arching its body from side to side in little spasms while it fell through the water, deeper and deeper, and that in that pool, where there was hardly a current, each would fall pretty much straight down, until it reached a swim, and then each pale shape would be pushed and jerked about in the dark depths, this way and that, as the fish nipped and nibbled, testing for hooks and getting hungrier and hungrier. And then each maggot would suddenly, entirely disappear as it got swallowed whole.
    “The shame of it,” I said.
    Something splashed in the river, a half-pounder jumping, and I felt that strange, familiar tightening, that wobbly excitement you get when you know that something big is waiting for you and you know you have everything you need to hook it, everything is set up perfectly, but there’s still a chance that maybe there’s something you haven’t thought of, that something can go wrong and you’ll watch the bastard wriggle off the hook again. I think that’s why people love fishing; you can cast the perfect line time after time but you can never, ever be sure what the fish will do from one cast to the next. The uncertainty is part of the pleasure. I reckon that’s why Andy’s father drives the way he does: maybe he’ll die and maybe he won’t and that kind of gives him something to live for, in a weird way. It’s the gamble of it. 
    Yes, that’s the pull; knowing that once you’ve set everything up, you can only watch while things take their course. While they follow their desire lines. But every gambler likes to get better odds, and that’s what ground-baiting does. 
    I picked up my rod – a totally awesome thirteen-foot waggler with a cork grip and a curved reel seat – put the reel on and fed the line through the guide rings.
    “Can just see Tryon doing that,” I said. “Knifing someone in the balls.”
    “His dad would.” And that was true: Tryon’s dad ran the drugs scene in Bangor. All the shotters went through him, even Guppy. Because if they didn’t, he’d break their legs. Or knife them in the balls.
    “Nah! Don’t you get it? We can do that kind of shit. If you get caught, nothing happens. Young offender’s, for a couple of years. Show me your wrist, let me slap it. That’s it. But his dad would get put away for fucking years. So  if there’s going to be a punishment knifing, they’ll get Tryon to do it. Or carry the knife, at least. Just like they get him to run hash up to the student houses. And take wraps up to Bethesda.”
    “Yeah. Whatever.”
    I fed the line through the eye of my pole-float, black underneath with an orange top, and tied on a size 20 hook. I dragged the hook across the soil a couple of times to cover up the smell of my fingers. Always be careful; the more things you control, the more likely you are to catch what you want. I threw out some more ground-bait.
     “Your dad ever sell that house in Bethesda?” 
    I’d once seen the cottage where Andy’s real mum had lived, if living is what you call it, through a coach window on a school trip to Penrhyn Quarry. It’s the kind of house -- cold and small and damp and dark and built of stones and slate and anything else they could find -- that my grandparents would have called a hovel, but then they’d always lived in Beaumaris, in the posh end of Anglesey. Andy’s dad had let Andy’s real mum live in the cottage after he dumped her, and that’s where she’d stayed, on her own, for literally years; going slowly fucking mental, according to Tryon. 
    I asked again: “Your mum’s house – it’s sold, is it?”
    “Really? Fuck. Mind you, there’s nothing up there, is there? Just sheep and hikers and Bethesda nutters fighting each other. It’d drive me fucking mad, man. I’d be taking the bus down to Bangor every fucking day.”  
    Andy was staring into the middle distance now, his eyes all wide like they go when he’s getting angry. Like they go when anybody mentions how they found his mum after she OD’d in the ladies’ at Bangor bus station, found her with her pants around her ankles and a flaking froth of dried vomit on her chin. She’d been there since the Saturday, but they only discovered her at eight in the morning on the Monday. They took her out on a stretcher, with a sheet over her, while kids were getting off the buses on their way to school. And then the sheet fell off. In front of about sixty kids with mobiles. The pictures they got; it was carnage, it was fucking shameful, and it was an internet phenomenon. Andy’s mum went all round the world, with her glassy eyes, gaping mouth, and shrunken, stretch-marked belly. Needle-bruises the size of grapes. Tryon still shows people the memes, when Andy’s not around. 
    “Even Tryon thinks Bethesda’s a shit-hole,” I said. “Just makes the deliveries, then back on the bus and out of there, soon as he can.”
    I got a couple of Number 8 split lead weights from the tackle-box to use as dropper-shot, and pinched them onto the line, one above the eye of the float and one below it, with finger and thumb. I left an inch or so between them; that way, the float should only dip for a real bite, not for the nibbles. I put another Number 8 about ten inches back from the hook, to keep the bait where it was needed, just above the river bed. Then I got the pliers and squeezed the dropper shots tight. Nothing comes off my line.
    “Not that what Tryon thinks matters,” I said. “Spreading memes about people’s mums. The cunt.”
    Andy’s face went pasty-white and he raised his chin and opened his mouth like he was about to say something, but, like a fish gulping air, no sound came. I could almost see his thoughts bubbling up to the surface. He shoved his hands deep inside his jeans pockets; the knuckles of his balled fists made little denim peaks. Slowly, now; slowly, slowly.
    “Anyway, like you said, we’re here to fish, right?”
    He didn’t say anything; I looked down at the bait tub. The maggots’ churn just didn’t stop. As if bits of life were coming to a rolling boil. As if they were excited by the part they had in each fisherman’s cunning plan, and welcomed it. And it is so fucking cunning, actually, if you just take a minute to think about it. Because ground-baiting actually shapes the fish’s desire lines without them knowing it, and there’s the slickness of it. It makes habits that lead to the hook; it links the fish’s need to the fisherman’s need. In fact, I would say it makes the desire lines of fish and fisherman follow the same course. Just for a little way; but it only needs to be a little way. From swim to hook is all it takes, and that’s the truth. But then again, you can overdo it; even fish get tired with too much of one thing.
    “Don’t think we need any more ground-baiting, do we?”
    Andy shook his head. “Fuck no. Any more of that and they’ll stop feeding.” 
    We picked up our rods and folding stools and crept to the bank, keeping our heads lower than the surrounding shrubs. I brought the maggot tub tucked under my arm. We set up our stools in the usual place, where the bank’s slope and some high brambles covered our outlines. Andy looked across the water, one hand clenching open and shut, open and shut, over and over.
    “I’ll take the swim by the willow,” said Andy. That was the best swim; it was where the biggest roach collected, the two-pounders that scared off the smaller ones or ate them, and it was where we’d hooked the three-pounder. I’d have liked to fish it myself, of course; but sometimes you can want somebody else to have something that you also want, want them to have it instead of you, if it helps you get something you want even more. If it makes the right desire line. And people like Andy and Tryon, they’ll never, never understand that; Tryon’s just stupid, and Andy, well, he’s not stupid, as such, but there’s something missing in his head. People say it’s because his mum was doing smack while she was breast-feeding him; I don’t know if that’s right, but I do know that a lot of the time Andy does things without really knowing why he does them. That’s for sure. 
    Man, that is for fucking sure.
    I selected a big, fat, lively maggot and stuck it on the hook. “You’ll never guess what I found,” I said to Andy. “On the beach at Menai Bridge, last weekend.”
    “Just tell me, you twat.”
    I dug around in my pocket and took out the lock-knife. It was painted in camo colours like it was some military thing. The blade was kept in the metal handle by a flexible bit of the handle itself; you press this out of the way with the thumb of the hand that you’re holding the knife with, so that there’s nothing to stop the blade swinging out, and then you can make it whip out from the handle and lock into place with just a flick of the wrist. It was beasty-mean, and I’d have loved to have kept it. I showed Andy how it worked.
    “Better hand it in, I suppose,” I said. “At school, or the police.”
    “What? Don’t be fucking stupid. Why would you do that?”
    “You can get into a shitload of trouble if you’re caught carrying one of these—”
    “Man, you’re a wimp! A fucking girl! Give it to me, then – I’ll have it.”
    “Jeez. Okay. But you didn’t get it from me, yeah?” 
    The truth is, I didn’t have to work at looking reluctant. I was sorry to see that knife go. But there again, it was cutting a trail for me; it was making a new, secret desire line. And it was already Andy’s, somehow; he was already holding it and practising how to release the blade with a fast, wristy snap and close it up again, one-handed.
    The maggot thrashed around on the hook while I held the line in the crook of my finger, pulled back the bail arm from the reel, and walked to the edge of the bank. I made the cast and watched the orange-tipped pole-float sail through the air and plop into the water. The split shot sunk immediately and pulled the float upright. Beneath the surface, the hooked bait, I knew, was still descending, down through dark waters to where roach swam like slow, cold thoughts. 
    I touched my swollen eye, the bruise as firm as a ripe plum, and looked at the river. Move as slow as you like, you poor, dumb fish; I’ll have my catch, soon enough.