As youngsters, my sister (then known as Tina) and I would often go fishing at the weekend with our step-father Harry and step-brother Pete. On match days we’d sit and watch them fish but if it was a family outing, Mum would come along to keep an eye on us and we’d be allowed to cast our own lines and try to catch a few fish ourselves.
They were the happiest days of my childhood.
I loved the ritual of preparation. Mum packed our lunchboxes with enough sandwiches and cake to feed a small army while Pete and Harry boiled wheat and hempseed for bait; sprinkled tins of maggots with fresh sawdust; mixed and bagged groundbait; oiled reels and checked lines; tied various sizes of spade-ended hooks to fine leaders; attached lead weights to swim-feeders; and sorted floats by colour, size, and buoyancy.
In the evening, we would pack our gear into an old green Bedford van so we could get away early the next morning and drive to the venue before dawn. When the alarm went off, Tina and I crawled out of our beds, dressed in the dark, and climbed into the back of the van where we wedged ourselves among the half a dozen cushions that were scattered on the bare metal floor, and settled down for the journey.
As the sun rose, Tina and I craned our necks to look through the windscreen between the heads and shoulders of the three adults sitting on the bench seat in front of us. We had the crucial task of magpie spotting and we knew that the success of our entire expedition depended on our dedication and keen eyesight.
Single magpies were the problem; they brought bad luck. Pairs and groups could be ignored but if we encountered a lone magpie, the magic words Good morning Mr. Magpie. How’s your wife today? had to be yelled in unison by everyone in the van in order to avert the disaster of slack lines and empty nets.
50 years later, I rarely go fishing and I’m not superstitious by nature but I still find myself saying the same words out loud whenever I see a solitary magpie. Nursery rhymes didn’t really figure in my childhood and I had no idea why single magpies were thought to be unlucky. In fact, it makes me smile to think that until quite recently I believed that this esoteric knowledge was a family secret, handed down from one generation to the next.
For some reason, I woke up late this morning with the first two lines of the nursery rhyme going round in my head, as if they had come from a dream. The words prompted the memory of our family fishing trips and, as I pondered their meaning, they also seemed to speak a deeper truth about life and love.
One for sorrow,
Two for joy.
Of course, not all pairings are joyful and we can be happy on our own, but right now it’s the shared adventure of being and becoming a couple that most excites and delights me.
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
Never to be told.
Eight for a wish,
Nine for a kiss,
Ten for a bird,
You must not miss.