It wasn’t every weekend, though in retrospect it feels like that. As a nine-year-old, it was what I looked forward to all week long. Grandpa would pick me up on Saturday evening after tea, and bring me home on Sunday in time for Mum’s high tea with its customary tinned salmon and salad followed by a Victoria sponge. Grandpa enjoyed those, too. In between those two tea-times was Grandpa-and-me-time.
Grandma gave me a cuddle when we arrived on Saturday, but on Sunday morning I never saw her. “I’m not getting up in the dark to make you two your breakfast on the one day of the week when I can have a lie-in,” she said, when I asked her about it. “Your Grandpa’s perfectly capable of that if he has to.”
He was, too. I usually woke up a few minutes before the alarm clock’s scream at 6 a.m. and Grandpa didn’t fuss about making me wash and brush my teeth. He made a big pot of tea, poured us two cups and the rest went into his thermos flask. At the same time he boiled us a couple of eggs – sometimes hard, sometimes soft – and cut thick slices of bread and butter that he smeared with Marmite. We drank our tea, ate the eggs with one doorstep slice of bread, butter and Marmite, and wrapped two more hefty Marmite sandwiches in greaseproof paper for our lunch.
Then Grandpa’s fishing mate George would arrive in his van, always with the same question for me: “Got your stomach well-lined, ‘ave yer, Sonny?” and I would reply with the same answer every time: “Yes, George, good ol’ Marmite!” as I clambered into the back of the van with the creels and fishing rods.
Usually, the sun rose during our drive to the river, so we could see by the dim early light where the best “holes” were. Grandpa and George always talked about “good holes”, the best little semi-circular hollows in the river bank where you could place your folding seat and settle down comfortably to wait for the fish to bite. Sometimes we found a good hole pretty quickly, other times it felt as if we’d walked miles before Grandpa said, “This’ll do!” and I could unpack my fishing tackle.
My job was to put the maggots on the hook, which could be quite fiddly because the maggots didn’t really like it and weren’t always cooperative. We’d cast our lines and then sit back to watch the float bobbing about in the water, waiting for it to dip and signal that a fish had taken the bait. Sometimes it was a long wait, but there was always something interesting going on along the river bank, and though I always had one eye on the float, the other followed the activities of ducks and voles and whatever else was foraging in the undergrowth. After a while, Grandpa would nod towards the thermos flask and the packet of sandwiches and I’d silently pass them over to him. Then we’d have a quiet little picnic.
One day, a bit of Marmite was transferred from my fingers to the maggot I was threading onto my hook. To my surprise, I had a bite almost immediately and hauled in a nice big perch. Was it a fluke? I carefully applied a smear of Marmite to my next maggot, and again a fish took it within seconds. Repeated the procedure, and another fish. Grandpa looked on in amazement.
“What are you using for bait?” he asked.
He smiled, and his next maggot also received a dab of the dark brown magic. It worked!
When George came by an hour or so later with his usual question of: “’Ad any luck, mate?” and we pulled up the keep-net to show him our bounty, he almost fell into the river. He had been downstream from us and hadn’t had a single bite. “Bloody ‘ell!” was all he said. After that, Grandpa and I always added a smidgeon of Marmite to our bait, and it almost always worked. Fish like Marmite, we decided. We didn’t tell George our secret, though, and I don’t believe Grandpa ever let on to him even though he was his best friend.
Angling remained a hobby of mine long after I was grown up and Grandpa was no longer around. My wife, like my Grandma, left me to make my own breakfast on those days when I rose before dawn and made my way down to the river to take advantage of the fishes’ early morning hunger. I always made Marmite sandwiches to take with me, exactly as Grandpa had done. One day, on my return she asked me about this time-honoured custom.
“Well, “ I replied, “It’s for Grandpa. He loved it. And the fish do, too.”
“But you don’t normally eat it, only when you’re going fishing …”
“Sure! I told you, it’s for Grandpa. And the fish. To tell you the truth, I can’t stand the stuff.”