The last quarrel I had with Anita we were sitting in pine needles by one of our favourite lakes. We were both safely married to other people by then, and chancing a reunion for all the tangled family: a picnic with brook trout in the woods. I couldn’t catch the trout and she had forgotten her matches a mile away. So we quarrelled in front of everyone about how to boil coffee on a camping stove. I said you should let the froth cover all the surface before whisking the kettle away to brood. She claimed that the coffee must never boil at all. Her new husband, a mathematician, closed the argument with perfect logic. “Me, I never let it near the fire” he said.
Laughter delivered us back to the afternoon. It was a perfect Swedish June, with the sun striking buttery lights off still clear water. The only vivid colour was in the bays where waterlilies flowered. The rest of the shoreline was composed of granite, lichen and pine needles in endlessly differing browns and greys. The same colours ran up the striated bark of the pine trees whose needles were beginning to acquire the sated, dusty green of summer. Only the stand of birch trees in a little patch of scrub and bog cotton across the lake, was pale and juicy.
The brook trout lived in the deep pot outside that little apron of land. They weren?t exactly wild, for they were implanted by the fishing club. The lake was a bit more than a mile from the nearest road: not wilderness exactly, but a very long way to hurry over a rough track with a rucksack on your back containing fifty litres of water and a dozen sluggish trout. The members who did this felt they?d earned the right to eat those fish. Often it was easily claimed. One afternoon my friend Christer and I caught thirty four of them, mostly on a fly I tied to resemble a caddis house made of pine needles. That?s what the caddis we watched in the margins made their houses from. Only later was my smugness undercut by the notion that the fly, dropping slowly through the water, could be mistaken by an artless fish for a hatchery pellet.
This wasn?t the only piece of self-deception by that lake, which I thought of as my favourite wilderness. A jogging track, maintained by the local town, ran passed one edge. It was signposted, though hardly anyone ever used it. Often I would persuade my wife that everything was all right, and we would camp there with our son. Then, we were happy. We had a tent that smelt faintly of trout blood and mildew as well as the mosquito repellent that saturates all my memories of Swedish summers. It was very small and friendly, and would snuggle down into tiny patches of clear ground between the boulders and juniper bushes that seemed to move every time we left the lake, so that when we returned it seemed impossible that we had ever been happy there.
When the wind died in the evenings we would set up the little camping stove with the dented frying pan whose fawn teflon surface could make even hotdogs taste good. Sometimes there were trout fillets, rather messily hacked from the brook trout: they were an intense pinkish red like barely ripe strawberries. But usually we ate hot dogs, and afterwards swished out the pans in the water before making coffee. It boiled over every time, sending up a thick hissing plume of steam and smoke because we could no longer sit companionably and watch it together: I would put it on to boil and then stand by myself for a while, casting across the empty water.
Love and loneliness tangled round each other like mosquitoes and coffee smoke. Sometimes we’d drink a little whisky to take the edge off the evening, before crawling into the tent, one each side of Felix. In the mornings I would wake at around five in an intense orange heat as the sun played on the yellowy fabric of the tent and crawl out, scrunching on pine needles. The very early mornings were always the most hopeful time for a fish. The water smelt metallic, and had lost its threatening clarity. Sometimes there would be splashy rises to damselflies or drifting ants for the fish were not at all choosy underneath their calm surface, and, so far as I could discover, lived mostly on hoglice and other creatures of the mud. Perhaps they were half starved. It didn?t help me catch them.
In those days I fished as I lived, to a very rigid system. I would walk into the woods every chance I had, to feel that we were free, or at least elsewhere; but when I reached the lake, I cast always the same way, and fished only imitations of natural nymphs as slowly as I could move them — though sometimes I’d forget, and catch a fish by accident, tugging a muddler through the ripples when there was a breeze. What I loved was the grace of casting. When I cast well, I did not feel that my rod or line was an extension of my arm. I felt that my arm and shoulder were just an extension of the rod and nothing of me outside of them existed. In its rhythm and passion, it was the closest I will ever get to dancing. And though the passion is not sexual, there is something close to love in the detailed, devouring scrutiny that the hunter gives his prey.
In the margins of the lake, I taught little Felix to hunt with an insect net. We would catch nymphs and take them home to study by my fly-tying table. Once or twice there would be a dragonfly larva in the net, compact and hideous like clots of mud with legs and grabbing jaws. I had an immensely complicated pattern to imitate them, carved out of spun marabou with knotted black eyeballs of ostrich herl. I thought it very beautiful.
Sometimes instead of camping we would stay in the fishing club’s lake house, which was a sort of doll’s house for grown-ups. It had been the home of a couple of Finnish lumberjacks, in the days when the lake held natural fish, but the club had restored it to sort of perfection. The floors were scrupulously polished pine; there were gas lights on the walls and lacy curtains. Great bearded men would sit up half the night drinking home-made vodka and staggering out to pee on fragrant lilac bushes in the night but they were never too drunk or wild to take off their shoes in the porch, and in the morning spent hours sweeping and dusting the evidence of the night?s debauch away before they started fishing.
I don?t think we ever quarrelled in the lake house. The pressure of other people?s domesticity was too much. All of our friends were divorced except us, and the lake house had become a sort of shrine for some of them; a place where they could build a house where people didn?t quarrel and betray each other. So when we came back for the last time as a married couple, we were quiet and tender. But when we came to embrace, I could only kiss her. Afterwards, I walked down to the lake. I could see across the water a grove of birch trees and their reflections, all very empty, all very clear. It was still evening, almost as bright as daylight; but the sun had long gone and with it all the warmth from the light, so the air had a blue metallic tinge as if it had changed places with the lake. Nothing disturbed the water; not even the memory of yearning. After years in search of wilderness I was lost.