The Haaf Netters

Frank closed the door behind him and was alone in the cottage at last.

All dwellings have a smell, an atmosphere. You get used to the smell of your own place so that you never notice it, at least not until you first open the door after a long holiday. The house Frank had shared with his ex-wife, the back door had opened into the laundry room so after returning there was always a smell of clean linen and washing powder. He missed that. He hadn’t lived in his flat long enough to imprint his own scent identity upon it – it smelled impersonal, of polish and plastic like a motel room.

The door he had opened led into the kitchen, which was north-facing and cold. The smell here comprised of dusty old carpets, furniture polish and coalsmoke. The faintest undertone of when this had been someone’s home rather than just a holiday cottage, but almost wiped away by long empty winters and the landlady’s cleaning regime.

After finding and using the toilet in the bathroom upstairs, Frank began to explore. There were two bedroom upstairs. One double, one single, with a Z-bed under one of the singles.
The main bedroom was comfortable enough, though plainly decorated and furnished. Frank unpacked some of his things onto the dressing table.

Coming downstairs and opening the door into the lounge, he noticed a crucifix on the opposite wall. He didn’t like it, but at the same time to actually take it down would be to attach a level of importance to it with which he was not comfortable either. But to Frank it had the effect of adding a chilly austerity to the place, despite the warmth from the clicking radiator and the log fire in the grate. Reminding him that this was not his home.

Disconcerted, he looked around the rest of the room. Ah, that was more like it. A couple of old fishing prints on the wall to his left. One in particular caught his eye and he walked over to examine it more closely. It was a watercolour of three men positioned waist deep in sea water, each standing with outstretched arms holding a rectangular-framed net that protruded above the water chest height and was about four times as wide.

“Haaf Netters – Solway Firth” ran the caption underneath.

The water was skilfully painted, the way the current flowed through the nets and around the fishermen. The figures were not so well executed to Frank’s untrained eye, being somewhat indistinct which had resulted in a surely unintentional, comically sinister expression on one in particular.

Haaf netters – the unusual word intrigued him, sounded Viking or something.

Putting a log on the fire, he decided he would have a quick walk down to the river, just to get a feel of the place and check out any likely spots. No point in taking his tackle until he had the licence sorted.

Frank was glad to be setting out for the river. As he stepped out, he noticed a definite and sudden change in the atmosphere, mist was falling.

He walked downhill to the t-junction and turned left this time, leaving the church and the centre of the village behind him. He narrowly side-stepped a dead mouse and a big pile of dog mess on the pavement.Looking ahead he could see the mist already thickening into a solid bank where the road dipped down towards the river.

Through the light haze he could see a hunched figure walking ahead of him, an old man in a blue car coat, also heading in the direction of the Eden.

The man was walking so slowly that even though Frank was some fifty yards behind, he could already see that he must unavoidably catch up with him.

With any luck he’ll turn off into one of these gardens.

But he didn’t.

Frank considered crossing over to avoid the man entirely, but thought better of it. A moment’s kindness costs nothing – this will be me one day, he reasoned to himself. As he drew level with the stooping figure, he offered a friendly ‘hello’.

The old man turned. A very old man. Deeply wrinkled skin an unhealthy shade of yellow.Dark hollow eyes, hooked nose, bushy grey hair in large nostrils. Roughly shaven.

“How do!” gruffly. Then, in a sharper tone “Where’s tha going. Fishing?”

“Yes – well, just to have a look at the river…” began Frank.

“You’ve forgotten your rod. Gonna catch them with yer bare hands? Hey, yer not one of them haaf netters are you? Nowt in yer pockets? Only, couple of fellers got caught poaching salmon last week with a haaf net.”

Frank’s expression must have suggested puzzlement. In fact he was staring at what appeared to be a large wound on the old man’s neck, sewn up with a rough suture that almost looked like fishing line.

“One o’ them big sea nets they use up on the Solway, about six feet across. Collapsible frame to fit under their coats. You just set them up and the fish swim in and get themselves all caught up. They’d set it up there and was driving fish in.”

Frank was unsure whether the tone was joking or accusatory. Either way he didn’t like it, not least because the volume was embarrassingly loud. He noticed two large hearing aids in each of the man’s large, fleshy ears.

“No, no, I’m just going for a walk. I’m picking a licence up from the pub when it opens later”.

“Gamekeeper’s about you know. Folks is keeping watch.”

“OK, thank you!”

“Whereabouts are you going fishing?”

“Sorry? I – I’m not sure yet!”

“Get yerself onto Setterah Bank. You don’t need a permit there.” The man jabbed a crooked finger to the right, the direction Frank was planning to go anyway.

“OK!” said Frank and crossed the street, agitated and vaguely aware of a couple of onlookers to this awkward, noisy encounter.

The old man continued shouting after him as he went.

“I know all about the permits, ask Johnny Ressick, he’ll tell yer. There’s no permit there!
Setterah Bank’s where you need to go. You’ll need a rod though!”

Frank quickened his pace to get out of earshot, passing in front of the village’s outdoor swimming pool. So much for being friendly, wish I hadn’t bothered, the silly old sod.

The mist was thickening now, but he could already hear the sound of the river. The air was cooler still, damper. Frank pulled his coat around him, but the mist seemed to seep underneath it, as if his very bones were cold and the coat was only warming the surface of his skin.
Here though was the reason he had been drawn to this place.

The river. From the edge of the swimming pool car park he craned to soothe himself with the sight of the water as it surged and hurried along with the friendly, vibrant chatter of old friend who, no matter how long it’s been since you last saw them, instantly and easily picks up a familiar thread of conversation.

Ah the river. This at least was ever new. Every moment, every second changing, not like the stagnant pool of urban life. The heavy mist gave the Eden a Stygian aspect today- grey white smoky clouds lifting from the surface of the torrent and seemed to morph into cloaked figures, raising their arms skywards in a slow, twisting, hallowing, dissipating dance of veneration for the waters of time that rushed away beneath them.

But as a fishing spot, Frank’s current vantage point did not have much to recommend it. The stream was fast flowing here and the bank was sheer and crumbling, too many overhanging bushes and clumps of willowherb to tangle a line in. Besides, it didn’t offer the seclusion he was hoping for with the road and swimming pool just behind.

Through the mist he could just make out sheep grazing on the sandy banks on the other side.
But the Eden itself looked promising. There were sure to be some deeper, more alluring pools upstream.

Frank started to walk along the path. As he did so he saw a sign nailed to a tree, black block type on white board, lightly covered with green mould. No Fishing Without A Permit. North Yorkshire Anglers. What’s it got to do with them, thought Frank. We’re a long way from North Yorkshire here.

The smell of the swimming pool, now closed for the season, pervaded his nostrils. Disinfectant, sweaty summers, a faint hot dog smell. All he could see of it was a rear wall, grey breeze blocks and litter behind a wire mesh fence. Before the pool was here, people would have bathed in the river itself, but it would be considered foolish, even weird to do so now, he supposed.

The gravel track along the riverbank behind the pool led into a field which had been designated as a camp site, complete with standpipes and electric sockets.

Now it was quiet, just one large trailer tent pitched right next to the path in the far corner, next to the stile.

As Frank passed it, he inadvertently caught the eye of of a woman inside through the plastic window, sitting having a drink. He gave an awkward nod and smile, conscious of having his own privacy invaded while unwillingly having invaded someone else’s.

After the camp site the path dipped down and a narrow wooden footbridge crossed a small tributary of the river. Passing over its heavy, rotting planks, Frank felt a renewed sense of freedom, putting the village behind him. Just me and the country, me and the river, me in the mist. Water on one side, land on the other.

But wait. Was that figure crouching up ahead or just a tree stump? A few more paces and it was clearly a figure, hunched over a rod.

“Morning! Any luck?” said Frank cheerily.

Another ancient face turned to meet his.

“Not yet, but any time now…” crackled a well-weathered voice.

Small, dark eyes and hooded eyelids beneath an old, battered black waxed fishing hat with home-tied flies hooked in. The same deep-wrinkled sallow skin as that obstreperous old bugger in the village. And that wasn’t all. Just visible beneath the hat was a long, snaking scar sealed with the same rough stitches Frank had seen on the other man’s neck.

Remind me not to go to the doctors’ round here, thought Frank. But, observing the custom of the riverbank, he paused to take an interest as the man made a few casts.

At the third cast, the rod dipped and there was a satisfied chuckle from its master. In a display of surprising strength and dexterity, a good sized trout was smoothly and firmly ripped out of the brown depths without even a token fight, its furious thrashing on the hook rendered utterly futile.

“Pass me the priest, would you?” said the fisherman.

“Sorry?” Frank was still taken aback at the easy violence of the catch.

“The priest – yon little wooden club, hurry up man!”

Frank picked it up handed it over. A strong smell rose from the man’s open tackle box box. Damp, earthy, maggoty.

The elderly angler now lifted his rod vertically so that the thrashing hooked fish came spinning rapidly towards him, spraying slime, weed and river water. At the first attempt he assuredly grabbed the fish with one hand and in a single swift movement bashed it sharply over the top of the head with the club held in the other.

“They call this a priest, see! Gives ’em the last rites.”

Frank saw blood trickle from the corner of the trout’s mouth as it shuddered in its death spasms. The fisherman gave a grunt of satisfaction and stuffed it into a grubby carrier bag.
“Folks was down here with a haaf net” said the man as he turned back to the river and cast again. A definite insinuation in the tone of voice.

“Yes, an old chap in the village told me. By the way, you don’t know where Setterah Bank is do you?”

A derisive snort. “Setterah Bank?! You’re miles out! That’s up Gamblesby way – across the river man. I hope you can swim!”

Once again, the volume was embarrassingly loud. To add to his discomfort, a dog walker emerged out of the mist, an old woman, and had evidently overheard. She shared a smile with the angler and shook her head with a scornful tut at Frank. To his shock, he noticed that she also had the same sagging, yellow, wrinkled complexion as the old men. Her dog was some sort of enormous sheepdog on a heavy chain, it growled at him as he shrank out of its path.

“Maybe I misheard him,” said Frank as the woman and her dog merged into the mist.
“No, you don’t want to listen to old Geordie Whitebirk. He’s gone in the head! Everyone can tell you that. They’ll have a right laugh at you in the Midland tonight, listening to old Geordie.”

“He said something about it being somewhere you didn’t need a permit”.

The man shook his head.

“You want to get yourself to Blitterlees Gill! Get across yon bridge there.” A dismissive flap of the arm to the right, further along the bank.

Frank hesitated. “Sorry? Blitter…?”

“Blitterlees Gill!” repeated the fisherman impatiently. “Get yerself along there. No point stopping here. Where’s yer rod anyway? Sure you’re not one of them haaf netters?”

“No, I’m not. I left my rod back at the cottage, I’ll pick it up later once I’ve got my permit.”

“I thought you was looking for somewhere to fish without a permit?”

“No, I am going to get a permit, it’s just that the other chap told me…”

“Well it’s a long way back for it, but suit yourself.”

Frank turned away without saying goodbye. What was wrong with everyone round here, why was every exchange so bloody hostile? And what was the matter with their faces? He’d heard of a medical condition called Derbyshire neck, maybe this livid yellow and deep wrinkling was ‘Cumbrian face’.

He threaded his way further along the path, into the deepening gloom. It was so dense now he could hardly see further than an arms length. The path rose and fell sharply over tree roots, he experienced the peculiar sensation of stepping into space as he underestimated the slope and found his foot falling further than expected. But always there was the comforting chatter of the river to his left to guide and console.

But still smarting from the encounter with the man in the black hat, Frank did not heed the warning of the mis-step and continued at a pace that was inadvisedly hurried. At the top of the next rise in the path, his toe clipped a root at the foot of a large sycamore and he slipped over, pain in his left knee. He heard soil dislodged by his fall cascading down into the water to his left.

Falling was a shock. He couldn’t remember the last time he had fallen right over. He could feel damp from the ground soaking through his trousers, invading his comfort, piercing his fragile shell of wellbeing.

Amid the smell of disturbed earth and crushed thistles, a moment of realisation that the unremitting noise of the river would have continued regardless of whether he fell in and drowned in its depths.

As Frank sat there, trying to assess the state of his knee, a figure loomed out of the mist.

Another ancient voice. “Steady on there lad! You’ll be in’t river! What’s the rush?”
This time it was a rotund man in a fleece and green woolly hat. The same yellow, deeply wrinkled skin, a brown woollen scarf round the neck.

“Not from round here are you? You’re not one of them haaf netters?”

“No, I’m on a fishing break – I’m staying in a holiday cottage.”
“Have you got a permit?”

In spite of himself, Frank suddenly felt ridiculously flustered.

“I was going to get one later.”

“Aye, that’s what them said last week. If the gamekeeper sees you he’ll turn out your pockets”

Frank struggled painfully to his feet. He could put weight on his knee but it had lost power somehow. There was also earth and stones in his shoe.

“Where was you headed, anyway?”

“Blitterlees Gill.”

Harsh, openly mocking laughter. “Ha ha ha! What a daft caper! You’d be lucky to get there by nightfall, that’s way down t’other side of Langwathby! You’d be better off at Lacey’s Slack.”
The man seemed to study Frank for an uncomfortable moment, but then headed off into the mist, back in the direction of the village.

Unsettled, Frank decided it was time he headed back too. After allowing a pause so that he wouldn’t catch up with the rotund man, he began to gingerly retrace his steps towards the village, carefully testing his knee at every footfall, watching the path at his feet closely now for any more hazards.

He had made slow progress in this way for no more than ten yards when he was startled by a violent shout to his left.

“Got lost again have you? You’re going the wrong way! Lacey’s Slack’s back yonder!”

The words seemed to be yelled with real anger. Frank staggered back in alarm, sending more earth tumbling down the bank into the river.

It was the rotund man. Had he stopped and waited deliberately?

The man tutted. “Bloody fool!” and turned away, apparently into a field.

Frank was unsettled now, the mist no longer a protective blanket but a threatening veil.
A noise – from behind? Was someone following him? The dank atmosphere was disorientating, muffling some sounds, magnifying others. His knee prevented any rapid progress in any case.
More anxious yards passed. Now he saw an outline of a figure rising from the riverbank to his right.

It was fisherman in the black hat, priest in his hand, shouting furiously “Turned back have you? Thought I told you to get to Blitterlees Gill?”

Frank put his head down and tried to ignore him. Just focus on the path.

“Damned haaf-netters” yelled the man, manically waving the priest in the air.

Up ahead Frank could hear a dog barking. A big dog. The wrinkled woman – was she still here too?

Panicking now, he could see the outline of a public footpath sign leading back to the village, away from the river, across fields. He stumbled across long wet grass through an open field gate, his trousers soaked below the knee.

He could hear a bell tolling in the mist. The village must be to his right.

The fog blanket wasn’t quite so dense away from the river and he could make out two gnarled old shapes in the centre of the field amid the long, grey, creeping fingers. Bushes – hawthorn bushes. He set his course to the right of them, looking for a gateway that would lead him back to the village.

But now another a figure emerged ahead, blocking his intended path. It was the first old bugger in the blue coat – the deaf one. Frank noticed with alarm that the man was moving much more rapidly across the field towards him then he could have ever given credit for.

“Hey! Where are you sneaking off to? This is private land! You were told to go to Setterah Bank!”
Frank was gasping now, the cold air and the fear catching at his breath.

He looked back across the field to see a silhouette of the rotund man emerging from the left.
Now he heard a metallic clang that reverberated oddly in the clammy air. The gate closing behind him, over his shoulder a glimpse of a group advancing with purposeful menace.

“Hoy! Come back here! The gamekeeper wants a word with you!” – the throaty rasp of the black-hatted man.

Another deeper, aggressive male voice. “Get back here, you bugger!”

A dog whimpering and growling. A coarse, female voice now. “shall I let ‘im loose Johnny?”

“On my signal”.

Frank struggled on in the only direction that lay clear – between the old hawthorns.

Ignoring the pain in his knee he moved as fast as he could, a lolloping, uneven gait born of sheer terror.

They were all old – surely he could outrun them? But the dog.

He could hear its horrible, gutteral growls and whimpers, straining for its handler to release it.
Hostile shouts rang out from all sides, hallooing, harassing, hounding him onwards.

“Get the’sen to Lacey’s Slack!” “Stupid bugger!” “Will you not listen?” “What did I tell thee?” “Lacey’s Slack!” “Blitterlees Gill, man!” “Setterah Bank!”

He reached the bushes, the land between them bare. He ran on, between their twin twisted embrace of mottled lichen and mossy bark.

He ran on, straight into wispy, misty net of something suspended from the trees. Something intangible.

He was stuck fast. Desperately, he tried to turn round, but couldn’t. Every movement he made served to bind him ever more closely, to sap his strength, his vitality. With his ever-weakening struggles, panic turned into peaceful acceptance.

His feet were no longer on the ground. Unsure of the direction of north, south, east, west, earth, sky, life or death he lay suspended between two worlds. Grey, swirling mist floated before his weakening eyes, but whether it was from this realm or another he could no longer be sure. Dark shapes danced and contorted around him, blotting out the last strains of his sunlight.
The residual part of Frank’s consciousness heard a host of footsteps, heavy breathing both animal and human.

Voices. Satisfied, pleased voices.

“He’s a nice one. Good size.”

“Ay, the old haaf net still does the trick!”

“Ready with the priest – hold him still now!”

What remained of Frank felt sharp crack to his temple. A trickle of warm blood down his face.
More voices, distant now, at the mouth of the tunnel he felt himself sliding down.

“We’ll gut him and eat him tonight.”

“Hit him again Johnny, the gills are still blowing.”

“Don’t damage him though, could do with a new skin…”.

Credit To – M.L. Graham