The tears started. I held out my arms and Fi was in them straight away. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I’d find out bit by bit. For the moment, she needed to be held and I wanted to hold her. She sobbed onto my shoulder. I held her tight and surreptitiously sniffed her hair. God, it always smelt so good. I held her slightly tighter. Then I realised I was being a bastard, taking advantage of her when she was vulnerable. But I was a guy, what else would I do?

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Chapter 13 Shut As In Closed

It was frankly a miracle that my head wasn’t worse next morning. Fi’s coffee plus the litre of water I drank before turning in must have helped. I dosed up on paracetemol and caffeine for breakfast, then went round everyone’s bivvies and woke them up. We had a long drive ahead, and we still had to take the tents down and get the vans packed up. We had Norm’s stuff to deal with too. I wanted to be off by midday but that would be pushing it.

I fried up eggs, bacon and bread and some burgers that had been overlooked the night before. Josh was first to join me and he silently made triple strength, heavily sugared coffees for everyone while I piled food onto plates. The guys shuffled along like zombies, drawn by the smell. Only Fi was sprightly and cheerful.

“Oh yum, thanks Marcus!” she said happily as I handed her a grease-laden plate.

“What’s the secret to being so bright and breezy the morning after?” I asked her. “You should bottle it and sell it. You’d make a fortune!”

“The secret? Not going too mad the night before,” she shrugged.

“No. That would never catch on,” I realised. “You’ll go bankrupt.”

Fi smiled. “Nutcase.”

The morning was long. As well as striking the tents, battling the damn things back into the tent bags that had mysteriously shrunk since the beginning of the week so that it was practically impossible, folding up bedchairs and pods and tripods, stuffing clothes into holdalls (or black plastic sacks in Derek’s case – he never brought anything else), there were the vans to pack, the cabin to scrub and a final check to make sure we hadn’t left any bits of litter or equipment, however small. Finally we were ready to leave. Mitch had slunk off midmorning, severely the worse for wear. Nat and Liam persuaded Fi to travel with them to the services where we parted company, so I was to have Phil as my travelling companion to start with. I wasn’t massively impressed. We said our goodbyes to Julian and Carla and then headed sadly for home.

Phil was surprisingly good company and we had a nice chat about fishing in general and current affairs until we parted company. Then Rob’s brigade headed for the tunnel and my lot set off for Calais. Fi travelled with me, and Greg came along to be gooseberry. He reckoned he’d had enough of Andy’s snoring. The three of us were tired, so there was some conversation but a lot more music as I drove and the others semi-snoozed up to the port. We found a fast food place for supper then joined the queue for the boat. Amazingly the lads were already planning to hit the bar. And they did when we got on board. Fi tagged along too, but I had definitely overdone my alcohol quotient for the year during this last week so, as much as I wanted to be with Fi, I did the fuddy-duddy passenger thing and spent an uncomfortable night in a reclining seat. I was vaguely aware of the others reappearing at some point.

We disembarked bleakly in the grey, early hours and got back to the fishery about nine, all quiet and bleary-eyed. We cheered up briefly over coffee and sandwiches in the lodge. Then we went our separate ways. Andy was running the others home. He managed to squeeze them all in. I wasn’t sorry. I was knackered from the drive home, although a bit longer with Fi would have been nice. She kissed me on both cheeks and hugged me when we said ‘goodbye’.

“See you next weekend?” I queried.

“If I possibly can,” she smiled. “And I’ll keep you posted about, you know,” she added quietly.

“What’s going on here then?” leered Derek, who’d overheard. “What’s ‘you know’ all about?”

“About my signing up for Fi’s middle-aged-men’s weight-loss workouts,” I improvised aggressively. “I’m getting fat. OK? Fi’s going to see if she can fit me in.”

“Sorry I asked.” Derek pulled a face.

I winked at Fi. She smiled.

I slept until lunchtime, and then moseyed over to the lodge to see what was going on.

Graham was looking self-important as he stood at the counter, advising an angler on what size hooks to buy. He loved being in charge, and he was good at it. I realised it was only a matter of time before he’d want to move on and manage his own fishery. Maybe not ‘want’ – Graham loved it here and was incredibly loyal to me – but he would certainly ‘need’ to make that step in his career.

I went through to the office, but the large pile of letters, invoices, receipts and scribbled notes from Adam made me turn straight round and walk out again. No, not today. I wanted to keep that holiday feeling for a little longer. It had been such a good week. Plus, I was too tired, and anyway, I was officially still on holiday. I’d booked the whole of today off to recover. This year I was actually going to take it.

“Everything OK?” I asked Graham in passing.

“Fine and dandy. Go away!” he smiled.

“See you tomorrow,” I nodded.

I was nearly back at my doorstep to settle into an afternoon of football and beer, but without whiskey chasers, when I heard a familiar thrum. I turned, and sure enough, there was Fi pulling into the car park on her Fat Boy. She was meant to be back at work this afternoon, poor thing. But what had happened?

I started back up to the lodge, but Fi saw me and began hurrying towards me. I waved, but she didn’t wave back. That wasn’t like her. Then I saw her face clearly. She looked stricken, and very close to tears.

“Fi, what’s up?”

“Hillside’s shut!” she cried.

“Still working on it, are they?” I asked. It didn’t seem that serious. She was tired from the holiday and over-reacting.

“No. It’s shut, as in closed down!”

“Are you sure?” I looked at her dumbly.

“The doors are chained shut through the handles, and there’s a notice saying the place is in the hands of the liquidators – Higgins and, and something. I’ve written it down.” She patted the breast pocket in her biker jacket.

“Shit.”  I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.

“And that’s not all. I went round to Stacey’s to find out what’s going on. She wasn’t there, and her neighbour came out and said she hadn’t seen her since last Sunday when she’d left the house with lots of suitcases and a guy matching Damien’s appearance. I think they’ve run off together!”

“Bloody hell!”

“And I was supposed to be moving in with Stacey on Wednesday because I have to be out of my flat by that night. So I haven’t got a job or anywhere to live after Tuesday night.” Her voice went high and wobbly. “And it doesn’t look like I’ll have any money either.”

The tears started. I held out my arms and Fi was in them straight away. I wasn’t sure what was going on, but I’d find out bit by bit. For the moment, she needed to be held and I wanted to hold her. She sobbed onto my shoulder. I held her tight and surreptitiously sniffed her hair. God, it always smelt so good. I held her slightly tighter. Then I realised I was being a bastard, taking advantage of her when she was vulnerable. But I was a guy, what else would I do?

“Come on sweetie, come and have a cup of tea,” I said as she began to calm down. “Let’s talk this through. And you won’t be homeless. I’ve got a spare room which you can have as long as you need. You can have a look at it now.”

She looked at me red-eyed and runny-nosed, but she was still beautiful. “R-r-really?” She was suffering from an attack of those after-crying hiccups. “Wh-wh-what would I do without a f-f-f-friend like you, Marcus?” She managed a tiny smile.

Nice to be appreciated. But ideally I wanted to be appreciated even more.

I took her hand and we walked to the cottage, Fi sniffing and my mind whirling as I wondered how I could help her out as much as possible without being crass about it. I pushed Pincushion off the armchair, sat Fi in it and put the kettle on. But Pincushion wasn’t having it, so he was straight back onto Fi’s lap. I was about to pick him up and chuck him out, but he and Fi had already bonded. He was purring loudly and she was looking happier.

“What a great cat,” she smiled.

I told her his history and she was horrified over someone running him over and leaving him on the road.

“Poor kitty.” Pincushion looked pathetic and lapped all the attention up.

I put the teapot on the table to brew, and a bowl of milk on the floor for the cat. He jumped off Fi’s lap.

“Shall I show you the room now?” I offered.

“Yes please.”

She came upstairs with me, making nice remarks about how pretty the cottage was and how quaint all its irregularities were.

“My room’s there,” I said as we passed the door. “Bathroom here.” I pushed that door open. Fi stuck her head in.

“I love the colours!”

I’d done the room with turquoise tiles on the floor and very pale aqua tiles on the walls. It had taken ages, but been well worth it.

“You can have that all to yourself,” I told her. “I’ll use the loo and sink in the utility room, and go over for showers in the lodge.”

“But it’s your house!” protested Fi. “I can’t kick you out of your own bathroom.”

“It’s not a problem,” I assured her. “Honestly.”

“Well, we’ll see,” she mumbled.

Then I opened the door to the spare room. It was a nice room, a good size and it had the best furniture of the house. There was an old hand-carved wooden bedstead, and a matching, at least with each other, antique oak wardrobe and chest of drawers. In the far corner was a desk and chair. There was a large mirror on the wall. The floor was wooden with a thick rug next to the bed. The walls were pale green and there were bright, flowery curtains up at the large window. It was a light airy room and wasn’t overpowered by the old furniture. The bed was made up with flowery green bedding.

“Wow!” Fi looked round. She was impressed, I could see. But then suddenly her face fell. Uh-oh. What was it? A cobweb in the corner? Was the whole thing too oldey-worldey for her? She didn’t like green?

“Marcus, it’s beautiful, but I think this is probably out of my price bracket.” She looked sad.

I was horrified. “Fi, you don’t have to pay for the room!” I exclaimed. How could she even have thought that? “You’ll stay here for free and for as long as you need.”

“But I have to give you something,” she protested.

“No, you don’t,” I said firmly. 

“Well …. Thank you. If you’re sure. It’s wonderful. I love this room!” She cheered up.

“I can change the bedding if you don’t like it green and flowery. I think I have blue and flowery, red and flowery, orange and flowery, yellow leafy and flowery, and I’m pretty there’s purple and retro flowery too.”

“That’s a lot of flowering bedding,” Fi observed with a smile, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, well.” I pulled a face. “A result of the non-wedding of the century - i.e. mine. Suzie had wanted to do a wedding list for the presents, and she wanted to do it at Jasmine’s, the most expensive shop in town. So I put my foot down and said ‘no way’. I wasn’t going to dictate to people what they should get us for our wedding. Most of my mates weren’t well off and couldn’t afford stuff from that shop. Plus, I had most things already since I’d been living on my own for ages. Suze wasn’t happy, but that seemed to be an end of it. Anyway, I found out after the fateful day that she’d phoned round her friends and family and asked them all to give us bedding. The plan was when we got twenty sets of sheets and quilt covers as gifts, she’d be able to rub my nose in the fact that we should have had her wedding list and then this wouldn’t have happened.” I threw my hands in the air. “To think I nearly married that woman!”

“Jeez, Marcus, I can’t believe it,” sympathised Fi. “You seem to have as much luck with your partners as I do with mine. Where did we go wrong?”

I shrugged. “Well. Let’s hope that next time we’ll both get it right.”

“Hear hear,” she smiled.                                                                                                           

Our eyes held. I was thinking that I hoped Fi would be my next time. Was she hoping it might be me? God, I hoped so.

“So what happened with your flat?” I asked, thinking it best to steer the conversation in a different direction.

“The landlord gave me notice to quit,” she replied simply. “Bastard. Apparently the granny of his girlfriend’s sister’s boyfriend lives pretty much opposite my flat, and she complained that I was noisy. My bike was anti-social, she reckoned. But Marcus, I was never noisy with it! I never revved it up or anything around the flats. I only started it up and set off on it in the mornings and came home on it at night. It’s no louder than a car. It’s ridiculous. And the old bitch implied there was a stream of blokes visiting me. But I have only had two men make it as far as my doorstep – one was the pizza delivery guy, and the other was Damien. Both of them came only once and neither of them stepped inside. It was plain nasty of her.”

“That’s awful.”

“Yeah, well, the landlord was a dick. The place was filthy when I moved in. I spent nearly fifty quid on cleaners and scrubbers. He said I could knock that off my third month’s rental – I’d paid two months up front. Guess what? He gets rid of me after two months. Things kept breaking and not working and he never came round to fix them. I’ve had no hot water for five weeks!”

“Fi, you should have said!” I cried. “I’d have fixed stuff for you. I’m very handy round the house!”

“I did think about it but I didn’t like to ask,” Fi admitted. “You’re always so busy, and I feel bimbo-y when I can’t sort things out on my own.”

“Well, ask in future, please,” I told her. “I like to feel useful. So, do you want to move in today? I could come and pick your stuff up this evening.”

“Crikey, Marcus, thanks, but I’m not ready yet. I haven’t even started packing, and I need to clean up. I have my pride. I’m not leaving the place dirty like I found it. Would some time on Wednesday afternoon be OK? I have to be out by six o’clock.”

“Sure. That fits in well. Tomorrow will be hectic catching up anyway, then Tuesday I’m out. My micro chipping course. Let’s say two on Wednesday then?”

“Brilliant. Oh thank you so much, Marcus. You’re so kind.”

I smiled.

“Oh. That tea will be good and strong by now. Let’s get our brew.”

We went downstairs. Pincushion had eaten the biscuits so I threw him out and got another packet out of the cupboard.

“Now. What are your plans work-wise?” I asked her.

“I have no idea,” she sighed. “I’ll go and see Higgins and Thing tomorrow first thing, and find out what’s happening. I don’t know how a liquidation works exactly. But I do know they’re not good news if you’re owed money. One of Dad’s customers went bust, owing him nearly seven thousand quid. Dad ended up getting less than seven hundred. That was a very tough year, I remember. Not much for Christmas.”

“Well, as an employee of Damien’s, you’re a ‘preferential creditor’, so you’ll be at the top of the heap.” I was trying to be encouraging. But it all depended on how much money was floating around in total. “All being well you’ll get most of what you’re owed.” I hesitated. Should I ask? I decided to. “Um, how much are you owed, Fi?”

“With all the overtime and the massages and fitness classes on top of my wages, the best part of five thousand,” she sighed. “Oh, I’m such a fool. I should have guessed something was up when my first month’s wages didn’t come through. Damien said the bank had made a mistake with the account numbers, but that it would all be sorted for the second month. And I believed him. Do I have ‘mug’ written here, Marcus?” She pointed with a rueful smile to her forehead.

“No, you don’t,” I assured her. “You’re not a mug. You’re a trusting person who’s been taken advantage of.”

“But what I don’t understand is why Damien took me on at all if the business was so dodgy? And then why did Stacey say I could lodge with her when she was planning to do a runner?”

“I guess Damien wanted to make things look as normal as possible,” I shrugged. “Taking on new staff makes things look good.” Especially when the new staff was as good looking as Fi. “As for Stacey, I don’t know. Most likely the same thing. To make things seem normal, when they obviously weren’t.”

“Life’s a bitch.” Fi rolled her eyes.

“Do you regret coming to Haverton?” I had to ask. Like I couldn’t guess the answer. But Fi surprised me.

“God, no! OK, things are a mess at the moment, but not as messy as they might have been thanks to you – but no. I couldn’t have stayed in Kentonford, and I’ve made some great friends here.” She smiled at me as she said that. “And I like Haverton. It’s my kind of place. Plus you have awesome fish here!”

I laughed. “Thank you!” 

But we needed to get serious again.

“Fi, have you got enough money to get by for now?”

“Yes, I’m fine,” she replied, brightly and vaguely.

“How fine?”

She frowned slightly, but I persisted.

“For example, how much money have you got in your purse right now?”

“Not sure,” she deflected, not meeting my eye.

“Have a look then,” I suggested.

“OK, OK,” she grumbled, opening it. “I’ve got a fiver, three euro coins and a handful of French and English change.”

“And how much in your current account?” Yeah, I was being cheeky, but I had a feeling Fi was not in good financial shape.

She opened her mouth.

“And don’t say ‘enough’,” I warned her.

“What is this? The Spanish inquisition?” She wasn’t impressed.

“Fi?” I wasn’t going to give up. She got that now.

“All right. About a hundred. Ninety-three something, in fact.”

Shit, that wasn’t much.

“And savings?”

“A few thousand.”

I raised an eyebrow.

She rolled her eyes again. “Ok, bit less. One thousand in the building society and slightly over five hundred in the bank.”

“Any bills to pay?”

“No. I’m up to date on everything.”

“Anything coming up imminently?”

“Bike insurance in a fortnight. I’ll transfer some money from my savings for that.”

I ran my hand through my hair.

“I’d better lend you some money, Fi,” I decided.

“Oh no. No no. No way. You’re giving me somewhere to live for free. That’s already more than enough. Friends should never lend and borrow money from each other. It never works out.” She said that with feeling. Another episode from her past I’d have to find out about sometime.

“This Damien business is going to take months to sort out,” I told her. “You won’t get anything for a while. I imagine you’ll go and sign on the dole tomorrow, but even that takes a few weeks to filter through. You might run out of cash.”

Fi had a stubborn expression on her face.

“I’m not borrowing money off you and that’s that.”

I tried another tack. “OK, work for me then!”

She looked at me. “Seriously?”

“Seriously. I have a massive waiting list for fly-tying lessons. I’ve got about thirty names on it now. Now, I’ve seen your flies and I know you could do those lessons for me. We take five students a time so that’ll be six lessons of two hours each. The punters pay twenty-five quid a head. So, how about if I give you seventy-five quid for each session, and cover expenses and Adam’s gambling habit with the remaining fifty each time? Does that sound OK? I’ll pay you for the first two sessions in advance now.”

I opened my wallet and put three fifties on the table.

Fi looked at them, and then at me.

“That’s an awful lot of money for four hours’ work,” she frowned.

“That’s the going rate,” I told her.

She brightened. “OK, if you’re sure. Yeah. You’ve got a deal!” Fi looked delighted. “And does Adam really gamble?”

“Rather more than he should,” I told her. “But don’t say I said so.” Adam had always liked a flutter on the geegees but recently he’d started flying off to casinos in France and Italy for weekends away with his girlfriend Anthea.

I needed to get back on track. “And how’s your painting and varnishing?” I asked. “I can give you fifteen quid an hour for that. The fencing needs doing and all the sheds need tarting up.”

“Wow! You’re on.” Fi was getting into this now. “This is on the QT, I take it?”

“For now, anyway,” I nodded. “But if you were interested in working part-time in the shop in the run-up to Christmas, I’d get Gloria to sort you out as an official employee.”

“You’d give me a proper job?” Fi looked incredulous.

“Only twenty hours a week, and only temporary, but if you can’t find anything better, then the offer’s there.” We could always do with another pair of hands. And if Fi proved to be as good as I suspected she would be, I might be able to persuade Adam to keep her on. But I was getting too far ahead of myself. Fi would want to use her qualifications most likely and find a full-time, fulfilling job.

“Wow.” She was overwhelmed for the moment. “Wow.”

Suddenly she got up, came over to me and kissed my cheek.

“Thank you, Marcus.”

“You’re welcome,” I smiled. I glowed happily. I liked being the good guy. Brownie points galore.

Our eyes held.

Then she smiled. “I’ll do the fly-tying and the painting for you, that’s a promise. After I’ve been to the liquidators tomorrow, I’ll sign on and then I’ll go the job centre and see what’s available. I’m not proud. I’ll do anything. But if I can’t find something, or only part-time, then yes, I’ll help out in the shop too. And as soon as I can, I’ll pay my way for food and electricity and water and everything, and I’ll take care of the housework and cut the lawn and wash your car and …”

“Whoa! No need, Fi,” I laughed. “We’ll share the chores. And as for food, I’ll buy it and cook it, and you eat it. That’s the deal there. You get yourself sorted out.”

“And no time like the present. Right. I will go home and print out CVs and start packing. Marcus, you’re a star. Thank you so much!”

She planted another kiss on my cheek, plonked her cup in the sink and turned to me smiling. “So, I’ll see you on Wednesday, then.”

“Keep me posted on how you get on,” I said. “Higgins and Marsh are on the High Street, by the way, next to Masterton’s estate agency.”

“I’ll be waiting on the doorstep for them tomorrow morning,” Fi promised. “Oh, thank you …”

“Fi,” I interrupted. “Please stop saying ‘thank you’!”

“No, I can’t say it enough times,” she contradicted me. “Merci bien.”

“Go. Do things!” I ordered with a smile.

“On my way!” But she paused by the door and looked back happily. “Hey, just realised. It looks like I’ll be able to come back to France with you and look for lost carp now!”

And she was gone.        

But that was a nice thought. A working holiday in France, just me and Fi. Exactly what the doctor ordered. Humming happily I sat down at the piano and rattled out some jazz numbers I hadn’t played for a while. Life was looking good.

   

 

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