‘How big?’ ‘That big’

Andrew Motion

‘Do you want to ...’ and sometimes ‘Would you like to ...’ my mother sang, never sure which was right. ‘Do you want to swing on a star? Carry moonbeams home in a jar?’ I was six but I thought I knew what she meant.

I had these friends, the Routledge twins: Andrew and Peter. My own two Christian names, as it happened, but divided up like that I didn’t recognise them as mine. Andrew was quiet and cautious, Peter quick and reckless. They lived on a mucky farm nearby; you turned out of the village along a concrete track which ran flat for a bit under a splintering ash canopy, then plunged downhill between giant clapboard barns and helter-skelter on, slithery with cowshit and wet mud, past the farmhouse, over a little brick bridge and – woah! – ended in a gate overlooking a field with a bull in it.

The day I’m thinking about, Peter led us from the house to the bridge, and Andrew and I dropped after him onto the riverbank. Peter was carrying a jamjar with a string round the neck. They were wearing blue boiler-suits, walking ahead of me in Indian file, all of us as quiet as we could be, but our gumboots squeaking on the shiny grass.

We reached a place where the bank dipped in a clump of alder trees. Last year’s seed cones were still there, and when we lay down flat they pressed hard into us. The world was at eye level: enormous ants going about whatever business we had disturbed; a spider legging it from blade to blade. When had I last taken a breath? Not since the bridge, not a proper one, and I wasn’t going to start now. Peter was working forward on his elbows like a commando, hanging his head over the lip of the bank. Andrew and I followed. A crumbling yellow cliff, thin alder roots poking out, Peter’s right hand already in the water, and the blood thundering in our brains.

It wasn’t a river, really, it was a stream: three feet across, with a sandy bottom which made the water look brown even though it was clear. Too narrow for anything, I thought, too small – except that right there below me, wobbling in the current, was a fish as big as my forearm. ‘Chub,’ mouthed Andrew, his lips making a little pop. The way the sunlight was falling, I couldn’t see Peter’s hand in the water any more, but I knew it must be sliding up behind the fish, perhaps even touching him now, stroking him so he thought there was no danger.

Then came the thrashing lift and the fish clutched in mid-air – just for a second – the yellow eye glaring, the greeny-blue body curved inside its halo of water-drops. Then another second as it straightened and started to fall. Then another as it slapped into the stream and melted.

We sat up under the trees and inspected the slime on Peter’s hand. His fingers were thin, red, and curved down as he spread his palm. The slime was invisible, but I could feel it when I dabbled my finger in it.

In a while, Peter caught some sticklebacks under the bridge, and a miller’s thumb. Because I had just seen the chub like that – so beautiful and by-itself in mid-air – I didn’t expect them to look like much. They were wonderful. The sticklebacks (three spines not ten) with their medieval spikes and scarlet belly-smudge. The armour-plated miller’s thumb. Peter filled his jam-jar, slid them inside, and gave them to me to take home. Moonbeams home in a jar. No, not moonbeams when I thought about it. More like bits of the moon itself, but dark.

Aksakov doesn’t mention sticklebacks or miller’s thumb in his Notes on Fishing. But he does have a page and a half about minnows: ‘Sometimes in the small whirlpool of a clear brook you suddenly notice that the uniformly light-coloured bottom is covered with something black; these are minnows, which school in several ranks, one on top of the other, usually with the larger ones above and the smallest below.’ This is typical. Absolutely precise and sensible, but with a child’s intensity and close-up.

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