Saturday, 8 July 2017

The Shankie.

I entered this story in the Bristol Short Story Competition but it did not make the long list. The winner The artwork is from my son Nick's notebook.

Rather than give an account of the brilliant days and nights I spent on the loch, I decided to share this story with you again because it gives a much better idea of how big a roll the fishing played in the lives of those round the loch.

The Shankie.

Around the loch, where every other person has the same surname, we use nicknames a lot; they are rarely flattering but they serve to avoid confusion.

Last month, when Auld Willie Clarke suddenly dropped dead, it caused no end of chaos; not least because, in a rush to meet their deadline, the reporters at “The Courier and Crier” didn’t bother to find out which William Clarke was dead and rolled out an obituary that they had already prepared for an elderly councillor from Fife. His family was not much amused, I imagine.

Our William Clarke was always called "The Shankie"; not due to his long legs, but to his initials, W.C.  His son, Young Willie, is known to everyone as “Kipper” Clarke because of his permanent tan.

The Shankie was never a man to seek public office or court popularity, but he made his contribution to life around here in his own way. He spent his working life in the deepest pits of the Fife coalfield, hewing his way for several miles out beneath the Firth of Forth. It must have been terrifying for an outdoor man like him to be so far down in that colourless world under the rock and the sea. No doubt he experienced cave-ins, floods and fires, but he never said.  

We knew him as a long-time committee member of our fishing club, which I'll tell you now, is a bigger deal than you might think.  He was a fine fly-tier, specialising in the local patterns that we use on the loch, such as the grouse-and-claret, the gold-ribbed hare’s-ear, the Dunkeld and the kingfisher butcher.  

I have a box of his flies here before me now. They are distinctive because, like the man himself, they are big, generous and hirsute; not to say flashy.  These are a coal miner’s flies, made from all sorts of garish, man-made bits and bobs. They cost nothing to make and never once won prizes for their elegance. All the same the trout did not seem to mind and we all had success with them. My favourite pattern of his has to be the “Blae and Black”, which is our name for the big midge that can be so thick over the surrounding trees and the castle that they appear to be on fire with columns of smoke waving above them. 

It was good to see so many club members at the Kirk on Wednesday and I think we gave Willie a good send-off with beer and stovies in the Lodge afterwards. There was just one more thing to do, and that was to scatter his ashes on the water. You can understand why, as a miner,  he didn’t want to be buried underground.

As with everything else these days there are bureaucrats to pacify and procedures to go through. Forms exist to be filled in. Because of increasing nutrient levels in the loch, no-one is allowed to add phosphates and nitrates to the water, willy-nilly: for that you have to get permission from Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH). So, on behalf of the club and the Clarke family, I wrote to SNH making a special case. I had to use all the clout I had, and tell a few fibs along the way but, several phone-calls later, the boffins up at Faskally and the pen-pushers in Edinburgh reluctantly consented; but they made it clear that this event did not make a precedent and that the loch was not to become an unofficial cemetery for dead anglers. “Amen to that!” I said.

Last Saturday was to be the day of the Laird's Trophy fishing competition.  We arranged to raft-up all the boats off Castle Island at noon in order to scatter Willie's ashes while we drifted along the shore, toasting him with a dram or two.

I think it is true to say that Mrs Clarke was not thrilled by the prospect. She told Kipper that she had lost her husband to the loch for most of her married life and he was hers now. They had quite a row about it, but in the end a compromise was reached. The loch and the widow would get half each. Half the ashes remained in the urn and the other half went into a plastic sandwich tub for the club.

Now, Young Kipper is a rising star in our fly-fishing team. He has bags of energy and he is organised. On Friday night he started to pack his gear for the match but then it suddenly dawned on him that he could now use his dad's best rods and reels. More than that, he knew that his dad would want him to use them. It took him hours to find everything and to make up his mind what to take, but he had it all packed in the old Austin van by bed-time. In the morning there was a rush to fill flasks and make sandwiches, so he almost forgot to bring the box of ashes.

We had a grand morning on the loch with fish often coming to the take just as the line was lifted off for the next cast. Everyone was in a good mood as we assembled just before noon. Kipper lifted out the cheap sandwich box to inspect the contents and found........ only teabags. 

He felt and looked like a lost bairn, almost in tears.  And, with no way to contact home, there was nothing to be done about it. Worse still, he knew that we would never hear the end of it. Someone suggested that we make the box of tea-bags into an annual booby prize called "The Shankie Trophy", but really it was just good natured but clumsy banter to relieve the tension and make him feel better.

Just the same, a bottle of whisky was opened and we had started to pass it around when we heard the drone of powerful outboards heading towards us from the direction of the pier. A bright orange fiberglass boat thumped across the length of the loch in minutes and made a braking turn alongside us. There was the stocky, bearded SNH warden seated at the helm, with the tiny figure of Mrs Clarke standing alongside him and holding the urn aloft. Doubtless she had found the box of ashes and realised how much the day meant to her son. We all cheered like fury.

So Mrs Clarke did the honours for Willie, which was how it should always have been planned from the start. We had the warden fire a blue flare up into the sky so it could be seen from the pier, the lodge, the village and even the Laird’s big house. 

The exploding flare made a boom that echoed off the hills and a snaking trail of smoke that soon faded away to leave a small, round, grey puff of a cloud that stayed for a long while over the loch.

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