A Christmas tale. A true story by Jack Gartside.

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A True Story by Jack Gartside

(originally posted December 15, 2004)

It was in the winter of 1969/70 and I was living in London after graduating from college. Living on odd jobs: driving a mobile radiology unit a few nights a week, sweeping floors in a coffee house after closing, mixing wooden artificial pips into strawberry ice cream, anything I could do to earn a little money to pay daily expenses as well as my share of the rent on the flat on the edge of Soho that I was sharing with a couple of medical students.

Winter in London is cold and dreary as you might expect and after I was let go by the ice cream factory and almost simultaneously lost the driving job when one of my roommates reclaimed it (it was his to begin with), the weather both outside and inside turned even bleaker. The first of the month was coming up and I was still a little short on my rent. Christmas was just around the corner and I had a new girlfriend I wanted to impress with something more than another dinner at Wimpy's. I needed to make more money somehow. But how?

When I'd first arrived in London some months before I wandered all over the city, taking in the sights, learning a little history, meeting new people, always on the lookout for a bit of adventure. One of the more interesting sights I came across in my wanderings was a moat surrounding the ruins of the Old Palace, the original residence of the Kings of England in London. Overlooked in most tourist guides and by most (but not all) tourists it was almost hidden from sight, set back from the main road between the Houses of Parliament and the Tate Gallery but quite close to Westminster Abbey. Now all these places are well worth seeing to be sure, but this unassuming and quite decrepit, crumbling moat far outranked in interest these more usual places of interest. For in this moat lived some of the most magnificent trout I had ever seen, dozens of them, all big and all very fat having been fed by tourists on everything from popcorn to pieces of sausage. Throw a piece of popcorn onto the surface and the trout would swim from the farthest corners of the moat to come for it. Same with sausage.

Well, it didn't take me long to figure out that they'd be easy to catch and would also be a wonderful diversion on a cold and misty day in London. There were no signs saying you couldn't fish there but I had a strong feeling it was discouraged, probably illegal and, if caught, who knows? I might be deported. But it was irresistible. The fish, all brown trout, were so large, so beautiful, so begging to be caught.

And so, not wanting to be caught myself, I decided to scope the place out in the early morning hours and also late in the afternoon just before dark (times when there were few tourists about) to find out if there was a patrol of any sort—a warden or a bobby on foot or someone else who might have an interest in safeguarding this area or discouraging uncivil behavior. Turned out there was, a uniformed bobby who sometimes patrolled the area around 7.30 a.m but never before, as I learned after several mornings of watching and waiting. Late afternoon turned out to be more risky because the bobby's rounds were less predictable. I ruled out the afternoon, then, and early one morning a few days later, with a two-piece fly rod already rigged up with a fly attached to my leader, I took the tube from Goodge Street Station on the Northern Line over to Westminster and walked the few blocks to the moat.

As I approached the moat I looked this way and that to make sure there was no one around, joined the two pieces of my rod together, and with one flick of my wrist sent the little brown fly I had tied to my leader out into the middle of the moat, where I could see two very large trout swimming slowly about, waiting for the tourists to show up, no doubt. The Unsinkable Molly Brown (my name for the fly, tied from mink scraps scrounged from a Soho furrier's trash) must have looked like a crust of bread or perhaps a piece of sausage or something else good to eat and the trout lost no time in coming for it. The smaller trout got there first, inhaled the fly, and I set the hook. Then it was off to the races. It took me around the moat twice before I was able to land it. At least five pounds, I figured. A very nice trout, indeed, which I quickly released. And just as quickly I unjoined the rod pieces, hid them under my long winter overcoat, and casually walked away.

Before I set off that morning I had decided to catch only one trout, to not linger, but to get in and out quickly to avoid detection. If I succeeded this time I could always return. And return I did at least a few times a week, always in the early morning and always catching and returning one trout. As time went on and the days grew shorter and drearier, I grew bolder and bolder, upping my limit to two and sometimes three trout a day, playing them all as quickly as I could with each one adding a bit more sunshine to the gray days of winter. All courtesy of the Queen, whose trout these were, although she lived some distance away and had probably never seen them and in any case would probably never have allowed me to fish for them.

Now one of the things I enjoyed doing from time to time while I lived in London (and wasn't fishing) was playing pinball at an arcade called the Lots O' Fun. It was in Tottenham Court Road not far from where I lived and whenever I had a few extra shillings I stopped by to play my favorite game; Royal Guard it was called. Over time I had gotten quite good at it and frequently won free games and usually never had to spend more than a shilling or two for hours of play. Sometimes I would win more than I had the time or the desire to play and would give my free games away to one or two of the other regulars whom I had gotten to know and who always appreciated my generosity.

As it happened, one of these regulars was a fishmonger, the proprietor of a shop in Soho just a few blocks from where I lived. Over time and many pinball competitions between us we had become quite friendly; "matey" as they might say in London. One day just a week or so before Christmas I quite casually asked him if he ever bought fish from individuals (like myself, though I didn't say so, feeling him out you might say) and not just from a wholesaler. Certainly, he said, but only if they were fresh, very fresh.

Here, I thought, was the solution to the problem that had been gnawing at my spirit for some time now, a way to get enough money to pay the next month's rent and perhaps enough for a nice Christmas dinner, maybe even a present or two besides. Who knew? Who would ever know?

And so back to the moat I went early next morning and made a few formal bows to the Queen's trout before knocking them on the head and slipping them into the bag hidden under my overcoat. An hour later I walked into my pinball rival's little fish shop and surprised him with two very fresh brown trout, still glistening, almost still flopping, and each weighing about four pounds when put on the scale.

"Very nice trout, sir," he said, as he handed me a five-pound note, no questions asked. "Very nice indeed. Very fresh, too. A meal fit for a king."

"Or a queen, " I thought, as I silently thanked Her Most Gracious (and unwitting) Majesty for what now looked to be a very Merry Christmas indeed.


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