I’d ordered 1,500 lbs of catfish for my three-acre lake. Each fish was a miracle. Mother Nature or God or whoever it was had done a damn good job with catfish. The rows of tiny teeth, the six sensitive barbels, the sharp pectoral fins that wash the prey into the cavernous mouth – this was a custom built killing machine. Each one was long and streamlined. You guessed it, I had a soft spot for cats.
I got to Fi’s a few minutes after two. She’d been looking out for me, as she opened the front door as I came up the drive. We did the French cheek kissing thing, then I followed her into the kitchen. There was one largish box, half a dozen black sacks, three rods, a couple of tackle boxes and a slim, wooden desk in the corner.
“That’s it,” indicated Fi.
I assumed she meant for this trip.
“No, we can get more in,” I told her. “It’s a bit of a Tardis, that van. You go and do some more packing while I load this lot.”
Fi laughed and looked at me.
“That’s it!” she repeated. Then for clarity she added: “Everything.”
“Are you sure?” I couldn’t believe it. There was hardly anything there. I’d been expecting to have to make at least one more trip.
“Which bit of ‘that’s it’ don’t you understand?” she smiled.
“But where are your hundreds of pairs of shoes – all women have those!”
“Not this one!” smiled Fi. “I have five pairs of footwear – biker boots, black stilettoes, camouflage crocks, running shoes and walking boots. Oh, and waders too.”
“No cupboardful of cuddly toys?”
“How about pile of handbags?”
“Crateful of jewellery?”
Fi shook her head. “Everything’s here.”
It suddenly hit me. Fi had very little. She’d said her dad didn’t leave much when he died. And she’d looked after herself since she was nineteen, working a variety of low-paid jobs and living in flats, never getting much money saved up or possessions accumulated. I knew now exactly how little.
Crikey. I needed to change the subject in case she thought I was somehow criticising her.
“This is nice,” I said, looking at the desk-like furniture in the corner. “Is it antique?”
Fi looked proud. “It’s an écritoire. Writing desk. It was Mamie’s, you know my gran’s. Her father was a carpenter and he made it for her mother. He inlaid these bits of abalone himself. It’s not very good if you look closely, but it was done with so much care and love, I think it’s wonderful!”
“It is,” I agreed.
“There was a matching folding-out sewing box but …” she trailed off.
“Your pyromaniac ex?”
“Yes.” She sighed and looked upset.
“I’m sorry.” I put an arm round her. It must have broken her heart when that was destroyed.
“All in the past.” She squared her shoulders.
We loaded the van. There was one sack of bedding and towels, two of clothes, one of coats and fishing gear, one of wool and the last one was the bits and pieces bag. The one box had her kitchenware in and ornaments. The writing desk fitted nicely alongside. I had a couple of bungees which I used to make sure it didn’t slip around. The van was less than half full.
Fi checked the flat to make sure she’d got everything. She’d left it spotless.
“OK. See you at the cottage then,” I said, opening the driver’s door.
“Do you think any babies are likely to be asleep at the moment?” Fi asked me, pulling her helmet on.
I looked at her blankly for a moment, then understood.
“Nope. Definitely not. Babies never sleep between …” I glanced at my watch “… half past two and three o’clock.”
“Good,” she winked. “Cover your ears.”
And with that she started the Fat Boy up. It rumbled quietly into life. Then Fi opened the throttle and made the engine roar. It was like thunder. You could hear it echoing off the buildings and it was making the windows of her now ex-flat rattle. Then she powered away, blasting her horn. I half expected her to finish off with a wheelie up the road, but she had more sense. She flipped the finger at one house on her way, presumably the landlord’s someone-or-other’s trouble-making grandma. Atta girl. I liked a woman with attitude, so long as it wasn’t directed against me too often. I tamely set off after her in the van and followed her to her new home. It would be cool if it became her permanent one.
I carried the stuff in for Fi, made us both a cup of tea, and then left her unpacking to finally put in some fishery-related work. But just as I sat down at my paper-strewn desk, the phone rang. It was Julian.
“Been thinking.” He launched straight into the conversation. No pleasantries. He was a man with a mission. “Our best bet is to get that bloody fish back where it came from.”
‘Our’? I didn’t mind snooping around for him. I wasn’t so sure about carting fish around the French countryside. That wouldn’t look too good on my CV if I got caught doing it. I’d prefer that Julian did his own dirty work. But that wasn’t likely.
“How?” I asked resignedly.
“Instead of you and Fi just going to Malval, you do a couple of days at Bellevue first and put my fish back while you’re there.”
“Julian …” I began with a sigh, but he interrupted.
“It’ll be straightforward,” he claimed. “They won’t be expecting you to be bunging a fish in, like I wasn’t. We’ll stash him in an oxygenated tank of water at the back of the 4x4, hidden under all your other stuff.”
“Your 4x4?” I queried. “That would be traceable.”
“No, of course not. The one I’ve already booked for you from the airport hire-car firm.” I rolled my eyes.
“Look, Jules, don’t count your chickens. I’m not sure about this …”
“Come on Marcus. I can’t do it myself, and you and Fiona are the only people who know what’s been going on. Well, and Carla of course. Nothing will go wrong. I’ve got it all worked out.”
Those sounded worryingly like famous last words to me.
“You owe me Julian. Big time,” I told him.
“I know Marcus. But the future of my fishery depends on us, OK you, repatriating that bloody common. If it gets found here by anyone at all, the shit really hits the fan. Now. Can Fi come, do you know?”
I filled him in about her losing her job and moving into my spare room. I could hear him smiling disbelievingly. “So she’s your ‘lodger’, eh?”
“Without the inverted commas,” I said snippily.
“Right, I’ll book you two flights down for Friday week. The 7.49pm to Limoges from Luton, OK? The jeep will be waiting for you. And I do appreciate what you’re doing for me. Oops. Someone at the door. Gotta go.”
I looked at the phone and groaned. What the hell was I getting myself into? I needed an espresso. So I headed out to the dreaded machine to hopefully coax one out of it. There was a van drawn up outside. Graham was signing for a delivery. He looked pleased. I guessed it must be the stuff from that new company which I’d given him free reign to order from a couple of weeks ago. God help us, what had he bought!
Graham carried the large box inside and into the office. I joined him as he opened and unpacked it.
“Sale or return,” he told me cheerily, “so I thought I’d try some new gizmos.”
“Such as …?”
“Such as unibobbers,” declared Graham triumphantly, pulling out a dozen packets of the small, brightly coloured plastic baubles.
“Cool, should be popular,” I nodded. Good start.
Next Graham lifted out about a dozen mini-cheese graters with key right attachments.
“Called mini-sharps. You hang them on your waistcoat zip or bag and you can hone fish hook points or knife or whatever,” Graham explained.
“Handy,” I agreed. “Hey, you got some Sharkskin line!” I noticed a few packs underneath bubble wrap. “That stuff is awesome. Hopefully the price won’t put the punters off.”
“They’ve got money to burn,” grinned Graham.
“Some of them,” I shrugged. “Not the Norms and Andys and Fionas though. What else you get?”
“Magnetic tippet threaders … rod rulers … fishing knot cards …” said Graham as he uncovered the items.
“Rulers – look, transparent ruler stickers for your rod. Easily measure your fish then!”
“Wait and see, they’ll fly off the shelves,” predicted Graham.
“I think the salesmen saw you coming!” I grinned.
“Split-shot crimper thingies … de-fishing soap … bait boxes … braid cutters … keyrings …” Graham went on. “And I’m thinking Christmas – ties, fishy mugs, fishy bottle openers, gloves …”
“Anything for blokes to buy their poor neglected womenfolk for Christmas?” I asked. “Not sure they’d want ties or bottle openers?”
“Not from this crowd,” said Graham smugly, “but I phoned Fi before you went away, and I’ve just got a catalogue through from some really classy soap and body oils and creams company. Fi says it’s gorgeous stuff, she uses it, so I thought I’d have a look.”
“Excellent,” I replied, trying not to think about Fi rubbing beautiful body oils on her beautiful body … “Might be an idea for us to get some packets of Christmas cards and wrapping paper and tags in. I’ve got a couple of charity catalogues on my desk. Loads of guys leave it right to the last minute to do their festive shopping, so we might as well make money out of it.”
“Damn right,” agreed Graham. “I’ll sort those this afternoon, shall I?”
“No, no, I’ll do it. You get off. Thanks for everything you’ve done these last ten days. Have a great break, and see you next Tuesday.”
“Cool, thanks Marcus. Ciao!” And he was gone.
I carried the box to the stock room for now. That wasn’t top priority. I needed to do the water tests and pretend to catch up with the paperwork before I priced the new stock up for the shop.
The next hour passed quickly with the water tests. And then some nit dropped his car keys into the any method lake so I had to get in with a net and poke around one-handed till I found them. I really was trying to keep my thumb dry.
“I’ve got something you might be interested in,” I told the bloke with a smile. I hurried back to the lodge, rummaged through the box and came back with a self-inflating keyring from today’s consignment.
“Designed to avert just this type of emergency!” I told him. He bought it there and then and took another one for his wife. Graham was pretty astute. He had an eye for spotting things people never knew they didn’t need but ought to have anyway.
There was a steady stream of anglers into the shop and café for the next little while and so it was nearly five before I got my head down over the bills. Then there was a quiet knock and Fi stuck her head round the office door.
“Hi!” I smiled, more than happy to be interrupted by her.
“I’m all sorted,” she told me cheerily. “Anything I can do here to help out?”
“You should never, ever ask that question,” I teased her, “because the answer is always ‘yes’.”
“OK, what needs doing then?”
I handed her the list of wannabe fly-tyers. “You could give these guys a call and see who can come this Sunday at ten. You’re OK with that time?”
“Yep. Nothing happening, no surprise there!”
“Oh Fi. I haven’t asked you,” I realised. “How are things going with the sports centre and finding a job.”
She pulled a face. “Not good. I’ll tell you over tea. Not advisable on an empty stomach.”
“Oh dear, that bad, huh?”
“Not encouraging,” she sighed.
Tea. That reminded me. There was next to nothing in the house.
“Um, Fi. Since you’ll be in charge of the phone, could you also ring and order us a pizza for tonight please? I’ll eat anything so choose whatever you want, but make it big!”
She began to work her way through the list. I listened in occasionally between uploading photos to the gallery on the fishery website and shuffling papers around. She chatted away easily and soon had five signed up for this weekend.
“Well done,” I told her.
“Right. Well, I’ll go and pick up our pizza, and see you at the cottage in about twenty minutes?”
“Didn’t you ask to get it delivered?”
“Nah. I can get there and back faster than they can do the trip one way, so we get hotter pizza!” she smiled.
What a girl.
She left and I gave up trying to work. I went home, laid the table and put some beers in the fridge. Then I sat at the piano and played, because that was the only way I could stop myself from going to peer into Fiona’s room and see what it looked like with her living in it. Here. Under my roof. She got home just in time. I was on the bottom stair.
So I had my nicest evening at home for months. Fi filled me in on her week – waiting around at the accountants who were handling the liquidation and not finding out a great deal from them; trying to sign on but not having all the documents she needed and learning it would be a couple of months before any money came through anyway; being told there were no vacancies at the sports centre and all the shops she’d tried to date. But she wasn’t despondent.
“Something will turn up,” she said, “and, thanks to you, I’ve got a home and some money coming in.”
I made up for my non-achieving afternoon the next morning. Snells weren’t due till ten, but I was at the cat lake by seven. I tested the water, cleared leaves from the grills and generally tidied up. I hadn’t spent much time at this lake for a while. Glancing around, I noted that I needed to lop off some low hanging branches from the beech trees at the far end, and thin out the alder hedging along the far bank. There were about a dozen carp growing on in the lake still. I’d netted the others out over the last few weeks and transferred them to the carp lake. I decided to leave those guys there for variety for the anglers. The carp were big enough to be left alone by the cats. I could always catch them and move them later anyway.
I coaxed the coffee machine into co-operating at half past eight and had several espressos to stand me in good stead for the unloading. I put new batteries into the video camera and fitted it onto the tripod for Fi. I’d left her asleep at the cottage but she’d just texted to say she was on her way. I checked the other camera was powered up too. I got out a weigh sling and the weighing tripod and set those up at the lake, and then got my microchipping kit out. I practiced firing the little gun a couple of times. I’d have to use my right hand. Normally my cackhandedness made me better at that sort of thing with my left hand, but I was safeguarding my bad thumb as much as I could. It was already sore. I’d be taking a lot of painkillers today.
I was back at the lodge by quarter to ten. Andy and Derek were already there, smoking outside, and Norm arrived a few minutes later. Fi was inside, making use of the time by calling up clients for another fly-tying class, bless her. We were all set to go. All we needed were the fish. We had espressos while we waited. About five past ten, there was the crunch of the tyres of something heavy on the gravel outside. We all looked round. There was the Snells’ fish delivery van with its bright yellow tank. I was pleased that Olly Snell himself had come to oversee. We did a lot of business with Snells, so if was fair enough for the boss to pay us a bit of attention. He was so experienced, the morning was guaranteed to go smoothly. He had brought two young lads I’d not seen before with him. He introduced them as Liang and Doug, both apprentices he’d taken on in September. They were nice kids, happy to do the dirty work if it meant getting valuable skills that might help them find work later on.
The Snells team had a quick coffee and then we set off for the cat lake. Olly got the van easily to the spot I’d prepared. Over the last couple of years I’d put down a good bit of hardcore by that lake. It was work well done. Each of my lakes had one good, firm area suitable for heavy vehicles. I’d learnt the hard way how painful it is to push a large truck out of mud at a lakeside. Olly, Liang and Doug suited up. I was already in my waders and waterproof jacket, as were Norm and the others. We’d still get wet but the outfits would do some good. I had a rubber glove on my left hand but I couldn’t see that staying on for long. The best way to handle fish was bare handed.
Olly opened up the first compartment of the tank.
“These guys are up to 10 lbs. They’re the smallest.”
I’d ordered 1,500 lbs of catfish for my three-acre lake. That was at the lower end of the range usually recommended. A lot of people were happy with 800 lbs or even 1,200 lbs per single acre. But I wanted my guys to grow well. I didn’t need my anglers to be able to walk across the lake on their backs. A lower density was healthier and happier. I’d also gone for sterilised stock so I wouldn’t end up with a population explosion or an army of angry clients, fed up with catching tiddlers.
And so we began to unload them. Fi got the video camera rolling. Doug and Liang held up a plastic container for Olly to carefully lower a neftul of squirming siluris glanis into. Olly then scooped half a bucketful of water out and sloshed that on the fish. The lads brought them over to me. Norm lifted them out one at a time and held them steady for me to chip. Fi switched to the other camera and took a shot of each fish individually and then I put it into the sling. Andy and Derek weighed it, and noted the result down by the chip number. I’d preprepared lists, knowing roughly how many fish were coming and what barcodes I had. Then the fish went into its new home. Fi took photos of that as well.
We worked solidly for about an hour. Each fish was a miracle. Mother Nature or God or whoever it was had done a damn good job with catfish. The rows of tiny teeth, the six sensitive barbels, the sharp pectoral fins that wash the prey into the cavernous mouth – this was a custom built killing machine. Each one was long and streamlined. You guessed it, catfish were my favourites.
We took a quick cigarette break – Fi and Doug were the only non-smokers, and then carried on. I was impressed at my own efficiency with the chipping and recording. I’d have to phone and tell Harvey what a success his course had been. Andy and Derek had a go at chipping a few of the fish, and amazingly, didn’t manage to chip themselves.
The final batch – at last. My hands were freezing, I was soaking and my thumb was agony. But I cheered up when I saw these fish. We’d been working our way upwards in size. And these were the specimens – all five of them over fifty pounds. Fantastic! Each one was over a metre and a half long, strong and beautiful. They’d lived up to now in the clear water of the fish farm so were black. The muddy water of my lake would produce a browner coloration in them over time. Doug and Liang helped with holding and weighing these fish. They needed extra pairs of hands.
“Olly, those fish were awesome,” I told him as the last one slipped out of sight into the depths of the lake. “I’m over the moon.”
“Good,” replied Olly, proudly. “Spread the word please, and feel free to mention me and my fish in your column.”
“And my blog, don’t worry,” I nodded. I shook hands with him, and then with everyone else. It seemed the right thing to do, to formally acknowledge the rest of this ad hoc team and mark this special day.
We were all chilly, damp and hungry so we decamped to the lodge where I served up sandwiches and coffee, and we talked about the morning. I had a quick look at some of the photos. They were excellent. Fi had done a brilliant job. I had some fantastic material for the website now.
Norm was first to leave. Andy and Derek decided to spend the rest of the day fishing, on the house of course, reckoning that their clients wouldn’t mind at all at having to wait another day for the kitchen to be finished.
“Not much they can do about it anyway,” pointed out Andy truthfully, with a grin.
Olly and the lads headed away about half an hour later, and then Fi left to call at some more of the shops on her list to ask about Christmas part-time work. Derek came with me to look at the lake again.
“When’s the official opening?” he asked me.
“I’ll give the fish a fortnight to settle,” I said. “There’ll probably be some floaters during the next week. A couple looked a bit the worse for wear, can’t help it when they’re being transported. But not many, not with Snells. So, I guess round Halloween. Media, party, the lot!”
“Count me in.”
Derek went off to fish and I went to man the lodge and drool over the film and shots of my beautiful new fish. I got my column written and a long, enthusiastic blogpost, plus bunged plenty of photos up in various forums for a bit of publicity. An excellent afternoon’s work.