Holly was in deep water – for two reasons. First, she was up to her wadered thighs in the swirling waters of the River Tweed, salmon rod in hand, a light drizzle dusting her head. Second, her husband George had given her a bit of what for – for making it abundantly clear that she’d rather be anywhere else in the world than on a damp fishing holiday with his hale and hearty friends.
This, thought Holly, wasn’t altogether fair – or, for that matter, true. She didn’t actually mind the rain, or the peaceful life of the riverbank, or even the majority of George’s friends. What she couldn’t stand was the curious sense of inevitability that she’d catch a fish – particularly after the men’s discussion at dinner the night before about the effect of female pheromones on cock salmon and the guffawing hilarity at entwining their wives’ pubic hair into their flies the next day – and Caroline, her hostess.
It didn’t help, of course, that Caroline was one of George’s first wife’s best friends and 15 years Holly’s senior. Despite endless attempts at friendship and nearly 10 years of marriage to George, Holly had always been treated by Caroline as an imposter: the young parvenu who seduced the broken-hearted George with her winsome urban ways. Anthony, Caroline’s husband and George’s second cousin once removed, wasn’t much better, with his quietly aloof demeanour, though he had been known to wince at the taunting jibes flung by his wife at the unfortunate, unwelcome Holly.
It had already been an altogether unpleasant morning, starting with Caroline’s suggestion over kippers and marmalade that George fish with her on the upper beat. Anthony had been charged with overseeing their other four guests on the middle section, leaving Holly to head to the lower reaches with the ghillie and work her way upstream in time for lunch.
Stuart the ghillie was a busy man, careering up and down the river in his Land Rover, retying flies, untangling line, assessing water conditions and gauging the lie of the “fush”. Sensing a natural ability in Holly who, under his guidance, had taken to Spey casting like a duck to water, he left her mid-river with promises to be back within the hour once he’d checked on the others.
For the first time in 24 hours, Holly felt at peace. The river glugged and gurgled all around her, dragonflies dipped and dived, a heron stood sentry-like in the shallows and the braying voice of Caroline was but a whisper on the breeze. And then, of course, it happened. The strike. The line went taut, the rod arched and Holly nearly lost her footing. From the frenzied water flew a silvery salmon in a frantic bid to release the hook from its mouth. It twisted and turned in every direction, the reel whizzing, Holly winding. But with each leap of the fish and shiny glint of its eye, Holly felt increasingly dismayed. As tears began to well, she realised for sure that this man-versus-beast thing really wasn’t her bag.
For half an hour the battle raged as Holly took tentative steps towards the riverbank, knowing that without the strength to net the salmon with one hand, her only option was to beach it on the shingle. When the noble fish was finally dragged upon dry land, she attempted to extract the hook from its mouth; she’d release it back into the river and no one – not George nor Stuart and certainly not Caroline – need ever know. But with the hook wedged too deep, Holly knew she was in it to the death.
A natural fisherwoman she may be, but a natural killer she was not. With no hunter’s priest to help her, Holly mustered every ounce of hatred within and conjured an image of Caroline as she set about her task. “I have tried and tried to be your friend, but you are a poisonous, vicious, patronising, manipulative, despicable witch and I loathe you with all my heart,” she cried. With that the salmon breathed its last, just as Anthony appeared from behind a tall bank of reeds, looking unusually cheerful. “That is a beautiful fish you have there, Holly. Played to perfection and slain with such passion…
…Woe betide the woman who inspired such wrath,” he added with a wink, offering his hand to help her up the bank.