Mike had barely settled onto the bank of the river when the other angler began to pack up.

“It wasn’t something I said, I hope,” he said, smiling only a little. He knew most people in England couldn’t distinguish between an American and a Canadian accent, and for much of his vacation he’d been shading their estimate northward by submissive body language and apologetic tone of voice.

“Hm?” The man looked up from his tackle. His ruddy face was clearly used to smiling, and after a moment of processing what Mike had said, he let it follow its nature. “Oh, no. It’s just time I was getting along. You’re not going to start now, are you?”

Mike was also no linguist, and couldn’t tell Yorkshire from Cornwall by accent. There was something vaguely bucolic in the man’s tones, though, and he was put in mind of any number of helpful secondary characters in BBC dramas. He let his own smile broaden. “Why not?”

Hands busy with breaking down his rod, the man gestured with his chin toward a small clump of trees standing on the river bank at the downstream end of little fishing hole. Among the branches stood a stamped tin sign which Mike had not noticed, although he would have walked within a few feet of it getting here. It was as if it was arranged to not be seen until one was departing the little fishing hole.

FISHING IS NOT ALLOWED AFTER DUSK, it said, the raised letters white on a green background. It had, like many things Mike had seen during his rambles through the UK, an air of antiquity to it that only mountains and some trees could manage back home. The sign was not, clearly, ancient, but it might have been put up any time since the death of Victoria. However long it hung there, it had been steeping in the strong background count of unbroken recollections which the country held, the palpable sense that all the ground one walked on had been trod before by countless generations. It was exactly why Mike had come to the UK– to experience that sensation– and so the sign made him happy even as it offered disappointment.

Equivocal directions, his own spotty sense of direction, and a loss of phone signal had seen him lose his way to the fishing hole more than once, late arriving in town, and later arriving here. The sun was still well clear of the horizon, though, and a moonlit stumble back up the path after a couple of hours of dangling lures seemed like the kind of quasi-adventure he could really inflate in the telling when he got home. He hadn’t expected there to be an official curfew on angling.

Turning back to other, he said, “So, if I was to stick around and fish for a while, I might get in trouble with the police?”

The local’s bright eyes sparkled amusement at him. “Oh, no, oh dear no. No police to worry about out here.”

That was something else Mike had found amusing during his travels, the strange British sense of scale. It certainly took longer to travel a given distance here than out in the prairies, but it still struck Mike as funny that what he considered a day-trip was viewed by most as an odyssey. Out here, the man said, as if they were in some desolate wilderness instead of less than an hour’s walk from three pubs.

That aside, though, there was the thrust of what had been said. A man who lived here, while obeying the injunction on the sign, didn’t think there was any official enforcement of that injunction. It could be the robust English sense of humour, setting a possible Yank up for a fine, but the man didn’t strike Mike as the type for that.

“So,” Mike said, speaking carefully to indicate his willingness to enter a harmless conspiracy, “if I stay here and keep fishing while it gets dark, no one would know I was out here.”

The man had turned his attention back to the final stowing of his kit. Creel, tackle box and rod-case were all bound into a single small burden which he slung over his shoulder as he stood, holding it by the long end of a belt. He returned his gaze to Mike. Long seconds passed as the man considered him, his face now impassive.

Finally, the smile returned, but it was transformed, somehow bleak. The man’s eyes darted to the water, millpond-still and reflecting one of the few high clouds, then back to Mike. He took a deep breath, sighed it out, and said, “That’s true. If you stay, no one in the world would ever know.”

He marched past, swinging wide on the upper slope of the bank, giving Mike plenty of space as he went. Mike pivoted to watch his departure. He mounted the bank, and was soon hidden by the trees that surrounded the sign. The whole time, his head was cocked around, watching not where he went, nor Mike, but the river.

Alone, Mike also looked at the water. When he had arrived, it had been the familiar translucent jade of a slow-moving river, but it had become unfathomable obsidian. The cloud above had gone peachy, its image become an unhealthy flesh tone. He glanced back up the path, hoping foolishly that the man would somehow be back in sight.

The moment his head was turned, there was a splash. He whirled back, saw only spreading ripples multiplying and distorting the reflected cloud. The sound and the dimensions of the ripples spoke to his experience. A good-sized fish; not a trophy, but a satisfying challenge.

If he could catch it.

If, he thought as he looked across the river to where only the tops of trees had any sun on them now, he were to hang around past dusk, trying to catch it.

And on the heels of that thought, experience voiced a doubt. Was it, indeed, the sound of a jumping fish?

He began to gather up his gear, the growing coolness of the evening bringing out a sweat on his brow.

“Self-Policing” ©2020 Dirck de Lint.