“Marcus?” Max held his hands up in despair. “What happened back there?” “Apparently I lured his would-be girlfriend away,” I shrugged. Max rolled his eyes and grinned. “You were fighting over a woman?” “Jordan was. I was defending myself,” I told him. “And did you lure his girl away?” asked Max. “Well, she is living as my lodger. But she was never his girlfriend. He never asked her out or anything.” I shrugged. Then I smiled, a little guiltily. “We’re going to France together in ten days’ time.”
Fiona started the varnishing job on Thursday, while I finally got to grips with my admin jobs. She looked as sexy as hell in a pair of old, tight dungarees and a baseball hat. I kept finding excuses for popping out to have a quick chat with her. Half the anglers were doing the same thing I noticed. Fi had a constant stream of visitors, but she worked steadily and got loads done. She was a real asset.
Adam rolled up during the afternoon, the first time I’d seen him all week. We exchanged formalities. We didn’t seem to get as far as pleasantries any more. He went to his desk, and I went out to look after some browsers in the shop. I felt rash and fired up the coffee machine. Holy crap. It actually co-operated first time for once. I made myself an espresso, then an extra large, extra frothy cappuccino for Adam. I took it through.
“OK, what do you want?” he nearly smiled at me. “You never give me coffee without a hidden agenda.”
“Guilty as charged,” I admitted. I perched on the corner of my desk, facing him.
“Couple of things. I’m paying Fi to give some fly-tying courses and do odd jobs around the place.”
Adam raised an eyebrow. “Yes, I thought that was her I saw doing the fence.”
“Hillside has gone bust so I thought I’d use Fi every now and again until she sorts herself out. I’m also thinking part-time in the shop in the run-up to Christmas, starting next month.”
“If you can justify it financially, no problem,” shrugged Adam. “The punters like a pretty face. And the other thing?”
“I need another week off in ten days’ time, to help Julian out with something at his fishery. I’ll take it unpaid. Graham will be back and we don’t have anything major planned.”
Another shrug. “I’m sure we’ll cope. And take it as holiday. You never take your full quota normally.”
“Cheers, Adam.” I hoped I didn’t look too shocked.
“But … there’s a price.” He smiled a weasly smile.
“Yeah. Dinner with me and Tony Frobisher next Wednesday, Graham too if he wants. The old bastard is sniffing round, wanting to buy us up again!”
I groaned. Tony Frobisher was a complete pain and a blot on the fishing landscape. He was a cut-throat businessman with absolutely no interest in fish at all. He’d seen a way to make money by opening cheap, crap quality trout fisheries in totally unsuitable locations. He crammed so many fish in you could practically walk across the water on their backs. He didn’t care a sod for the welfare of his stock. He charged bugger all for a fishing session and catered for morons. He had massive losses in fish terms, I’d heard on good authority, but was raking money in. ‘I bring fishing to the masses’ he said smugly in his adverts. He had half a dozen venues now, and they viciously undercut the local competition. Proper anglers wouldn’t be seen dead at a Frobisher’s fishery, but there were plenty of fair weather fishermen who only thought about how cheaply they could catch fish for. And they were guaranteed to catch something. The poor bloody fish in a Frobisher’s lake hardly had room to move.
Tony was fixated on our fishery. And for good reason. We had great lakes, excellent fish and an ever-improving reputation. We, well, Graham and I at least, had worked damn hard to get it. We were slap bang in the middle of the central chunk of England where Tony had his fisheries. He was obsessed with expanding and he wanted to establish a lake in our area, but he knew we were one fishery he couldn’t compete against. We were too well established and too popular. So he offered to take us over every now and again.
“He said it’s the last time he’ll try,” Adam went on, “but he thinks he’s got an offer we can’t refuse this time.”
“He’s not having my fish,” I said simply. “Ever.”
“And I agree,” nodded Adam. “But it’s a free meal and it should be entertaining to hear what he’s got to say. So Ronaldo’s next Wednesday at seven, then?”
I nodded. “You’re on.” It seemed a small price to pay for wangling a week away with Fi. I stood up to leave.
“Oh, before you go,” piped up Adam. The price was about to get higher by the looks of things. “Did you know a Clive Ellis?”
“Yeah. He’s emailed me about my column and phoned me a few weeks ago,” I admitted. “Why?”
“Well, his mum phoned this morning. She’s sorting out his affairs and ...”
“What do you mean?” I interrupted, shocked. “He’s not dead, is he?”
“As a doorknob,” said Adam impassively. “He fell in a river in France, hit his head and drowned. It was about the same time you lot were at Julian’s. On the news, everything.”
“Shit. That was him!” I couldn’t believe my ears. I’d been that tied up with stuff, the business of the drowned angler had gone out of my mind and it certainly hadn’t been splashed across the news.
“His mum found a note he’d scribbled about phoning you, so she was contacting you to let you know that, well, he wouldn’t be,” Adam continued. “She didn’t know what it was about. It was in case it was urgent.”
“Shit,” I said again. I was completely stunned. “Was his death suspicious?” I had to ask.
“God, no,” replied Adam. “He was tanked up to the eyeballs apparently. The coroner ruled it was death by misadventure.”
So, an unfortunate accident. Or at least I hoped it was. I mulled over the Clive business for a while, and looked it up online. Yep. It was conclusive. Nothing suspicious at all, just downright unfortunate. So I stopped brooding. I was sorry a nice guy had died, very sorry, but he’d been a moron to fish alone when he was plastered. He should have stuck to the lakes he’d told me about, where there’d more than likely be other anglers, and not have gone off to a river on his own. Shame, though. Poor Clive. I pulled out my hidden hip flask from my desk drawer and toasted him with whiskey.
I started to think about going away with Fi. That got me over my shock over Clive and I was remarkably and callously upbeat all day. Several customers looked shocked as I grinned cheerily at them when they came in, and I hummed happy tunes all day. I even hummed as I went round Tesco’s at six. I’d left Fi knitting at the cottage. She’d offered to come shopping with me, but she’d looked knackered so I’d suggested she put her feet up. She hadn’t needed persuading. I’d be quicker on my own and I was pushed for time since it was judo. My first session for a fortnight. I was looking forward to it.
“Do you want to come?” I asked Fi as I washed up and she dried after tea. She’d perked up after two large plates of macaroni cheese. She was a girl who could eat.
She smiled. “Thanks for the offer, but I still don’t trust my boobs during judo! Plus I’m hoping to pick up some evening work in November and December so I wouldn’t be able to come regularly. I thought I’d keep mornings free for here, and then do late shifts at a shop. But maybe in the New Year?”
“Cool,” I said. She was intending to stick around, which was nice.
“However … could I scrounge a lift into town with you? I fancy a swim. Shall I meet you in the pub after your training?”
“That would be perfect,” I said.
But things didn’t turn out quite as perfectly.
I dropped Fi off outside the sports centre and then drove happily to the church hall car park, singing along lustily to 12 Stones. I was still singing as I walked up to the hall and into the changing rooms.
Jordan was there, but before I could say ‘hello’ he jumped in with a savage: “Marcus, you’re a shit.”
That was unexpected. Jordan and I usually got on fine.
“Um, any particular reason?” I probed.
“You’re a total shit,” he elaborated a little.
“So you said.” I was annoyed now. What the hell was going on? “But why?”
I started to get undressed.
“You just are. I was doing OK with Fi until you get her to move in with you.”
“She’s only my lodger,” I pointed out as I strapped my padded kidney belt on. So this was a row over Fi. But there was nothing to row about though, was there?
“Yeah right,” he snorted. “You knew I fancied her. You’re a jealous, spiteful git.”
Christ, he was paranoid.
“Jordan, you’re getting carried away,” I said calmly. “I didn’t offer her my spare room to piss you off. Get a grip.”
“You’re just trying to impress her. Because you’re a swanky business man and I’m only a security guard.”
Where was this surreal crap coming from? Had he been drinking?
“That’s not true,” I told him sharply. “And anyway, mate, it doesn’t all go my way. You’re ten years younger than me.” I tried to reason with him. ”I’m not trying to compete with you, Jordan. I’m trying to help Fi.”
“Fucking liar,” snarled Jordan. And then, incredibly, he swung at me, the idiot, but I blocked his punch and pushed him back.
“Back off, Jordan,” I warned. I was very angry now. “I don’t want to fight you but I bloody well will if you keep pushing it.”
I half turned to carry on dressing, but he lunged at me from behind. Christ, he really was an idiot. He was fully kitted out, but all I had on was my kidney belt and briefs. There wasn’t much for him to grab at all. And the changing room wasn’t the best place for judo by a long shot, but, well, he’d started it. I wheeled round, grasped his jacket, got my hips under his and threw him in a classic o goshi. He used his arms to break his fall but it must have jarred him pretty painfully on the bare concrete floor.
I hoped he’d leave it there, but no. He was up within seconds. Damn him. He was a black belt too, but he was way less experienced than me and didn’t have a hope in hell of winning this. He was just risking getting hurt carrying on this feud with me. But he couldn’t accept it. He wanted to go on. We circled each other warily, sporadically trying to grab hold of each other’s clothing – or in my case, kidney belt. I wasn’t trying too hard. I wanted this thing to end. Suddenly he caught me fractionally off guard and clutched the top of my belt. He tried to drag me towards him, but the belt’s Velcro ripped open. He staggered back with my belt in his hands and hit his head hard on the wall.
Now would he see sense, as well as stars?
No. He came straight at me with a yell. The obvious move in the circumstances would have been an osoto gari, but that would have brought Jordan smashing down on the bench along the end wall and quite possibly have disabled him permanently. I improvised and caught him a headlock. OK, it wasn’t judo but I wasn’t dressed for judo, and I was beyond pissed off with Jordan by now. Jordan got an arm round my waist. He flailed the other one around energetically and smashed me in the nose. We grappled in an undignified, hate-filled manner for about another minute. Then we both jumped out of our skins as someone bellowed: “What the bloody hell are you two doing?”
Max, the head coach, had come in and obviously couldn’t believe his eyes at what he was seeing in the changing room.
I released my hold on Jordan and stepped back, mopping my bleeding nose.
“Tell this arsehole to stop fighting,” I growled. “I’ve had him down twice but he won’t bloody stop.”
“Both of you get a grip,” shouted Max. “You’re sodding adults. What the hell is this about anyway?”
“You’d better tell him, Jordan,” I snarled, “since I haven’t actually got a bloody clue.”
“Fuck off,” muttered Jordan, getting up.
“Right. You can both go home,” ordered Max. He was furious. “I’ll take training tonight. Christ knows what’s got into you two but you’re hardly representing the principles of judo – you know, respect, politeness, safety. Any of that stuff ring any bells? You’re worse than bloody children. You should be ashamed. Now sod off.”
I didn’t feel like apologising because I’d simply been defending myself, but Max had a valid point about principles. “I’m sorry,” I said and began to get dressed.
Jordan looked daggers at me and Max. Max pointed at him.
“And you’re not coming back to this club till you’ve apologised and explained to me what the fuck this was about. I’ll be waiting for your call.”
Jordan threw his jacket on over his suit and flounced off. I was soon ready and headed out of the changing room. I bumped into a couple of members coming in who looked at me in surprise. I muttered a greeting and hurried out. I could feel their surprised eyes on my back. I set off down the road towards the car park.
I heard running footsteps behind me. Would Jordan never give up? I threw my bag down, swung round and squared up to face this new attack. But it was Max.
“Marcus?” He held his hands up in despair. “What happened back there?”
“Apparently I lured his would-be girlfriend away,” I shrugged.
Max rolled his eyes and grinned.
“You were fighting over a woman?”
“Jordan was. I was defending myself,” I told him.
“And did you lure his girl away?” asked Max.
“Well, she is living as my lodger. But she was never his girlfriend. He never asked her out or anything.” I shrugged. Then I smiled, a little guiltily. “But I do hope she will become my girlfriend. We’re going to France together in ten days’ time.”
“OK, OK, this is clearly complicated.” Max shook his head. Then he laughed. “Jesus, Marcus, I never had you down for this sort of thing! Good luck! Go and calm down tonight anyway. Let’s hope it will blow over because I don’t want to lose either of you to the club. See you next Tuesday.”
I nodded. Max turned round and went back to the hall. I carried on to the car. I rested my head on the steering wheel for a couple of seconds after I got in. There was never a dull moment with Fi in my life, that was for sure. But was I really up to it? Was I going to survive it? I sighed.
Then I chuckled as I started the engine. No damn it, life was good with her around!
I drove back to the sports centre and went for a short walk. Then I bought a bitter lemon from the bar and watched the swimmers from the balcony. Fi wasn’t hard to spot. She steamed steadily up and down the pool. She was a powerful swimmer. Every now and again a bloke would accidentally on purpose bump into her. It was so predictable. He’d apologise and Fi would clearly forgive him and he’d try and chat her up quickly. But after a minute or so she’d politely excuse herself and get back to her lengths.
I was going to have to keep my wits about me if I wanted to get Fi, that was obvious. There was no shortage of rivals who’d step in if I screwed things up.
Fi got out and I wandered down to the entrance lobby so I wouldn’t miss her. Ten minutes or so later she emerged. She was clearly surprised to see me. She noticed my swollen nose. “Oh no, what happened? Did you get hurt at judo?”
“No. I got thrown out!” I confessed, and told her what had happened.
Fi was upset. She dabbed my nose gently with her tissue. “Oh God, Marcus, I’m so sorry. I didn’t know Jordan felt like that. He’s phoned a couple of times and called by Hillside to see me, but I put him of as much as I could. He’s, well, he’s not my type.
“Good, I’m glad you don’t go for violent paranoid guys,” I smiled. “Look, it’s not your fault,” I told her. “And I guess it will all blow over quickly enough.”
Possibly. But unlikely. But Fi was worth losing a few friends over. Damn it, I’d happily lose all my friends if that’s what it took to get her.
We had a quick drink at the bar before going home. We watched the news, chatted a while and then Fi turned in. I went over to the shower block for a freshen up. Fi kept telling me to use the bathroom in the cottage but I preferred not to. I didn’t want to put her off by leaving my hair in the plug hole or an escaped sock on the floor. I peered at myself in the mirror. My nose was puffy and my right eye was going black. I hadn’t realised he’d hit me so hard at the time. Still, it was only pain and it took my mind off my thumb which was seriously sore. I had a feeling things weren’t as they should be there, but I couldn’t face that nurse again. I soaked it in Klinik back at the cottage. It that was good enough for fish, it was good enough for me.
The next few days flew by. I was getting bookings for lot of coaching sessions all of a sudden. I liked to do them, but they took time. When I wasn’t teaching, I seemed to be answering the phone. Julian phoned a couple of times a day but it wasn’t all conspiracy theory stuff.
“You’ll never guess what?” he challenged on his Friday afternoon call.
“Probably not.” I had the phone tucked under my chin as I tried to unstick the slops tray at the bottom of the coffee machine.
“I’ve had some guy phone up wanting to book himself and seven others in for next week.”
As he was talking, I gave the tray an extra hard rattle and it shot out. Coffee slops went down my jeans, which just happened to be a very pale pair. Not trendily pale, mind, but over-washedly pale. So the stuff showed up really well.
“Shit!” I exclaimed in annoyance.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought at first,” agreed Julian, not realising I was swearing at cross-purposes, “cos I can’t have anglers at the moment and that’s money I’m losing. But this guy went on and on. Saying they really wanted to come to my lake, read so much about it bla bla. He offered me an extra two hundred quid!”
Julian had my full attention now, and I had the attention of a couple of lady punters who’d just ambled into the shop. They couldn’t take their eyes off my coffee splattered crotch.
“With you in a moment!” I mouthed at them.
“I took the guy’s name and said I’d think about it, to shut him up, and then I realised I recognised it. Alf Leggatt.”
It meant nothing to me. Get on it with, I begged Julian silently, and turned away from prying eyes.
“So I Googled him, and turns out he’s a buddy of guess who? The Hodgkiss bastards. There are some photos of him on fishing trips with Frank and Aidan.”
I could see why he’d phoned me now.
“So you think the H’s have sent that team in to get the common?” I had to be cryptic because of my audience.
“I bloody well do.”
“Are they suspicious about you not letting them come?” I wondered.
“Well, I thought about it, and then I rang Michel to ask him to come on the Friday instead. He can, so I can let this crowd come on the Saturday now. Show them that I don’t suspect anything.”
“Isn’t that a bit rash? What if we don’t get the fish out?” I pointed out.
“Marcus, we’re netting the lake. Of course we’ll get him.”
“Did you tell them you’re netting?”
“No, I said I’d dropped my levels to clear snags and they bought it.”
“OK. I’ll see if Fi can do Friday too.”
“I’ve already changed your flights to the Thursday night so I hope so,” chuckled Julian.
I sighed and put the phone down. What had I got myself into?
I dealt with the ladies who had come in to price up fishing stuff for their husbands for Christmas, and was grateful to see Fi roll in on the Fatboy. The moment she set foot in the lodge, I handed control over to her and fled for the cottage to change, hoping she hadn’t seen the coffee stains.
But she had. “Marcus? What happened to your jeans?” she called after me, but I kept going.
The rest of Friday passed without disaster, and I had another pleasant evening in with Fi. I played the piano while she practised tying the flies she’d be teaching and read. Domestic bliss, and something I could get used to.
Fi was a bundle of nerves about the fly-tying on Saturday morning. I heard her go downstairs about half past six, and then outside. Fi was one for taking exercise to calm herself down. So I wondered down and had tea brewing and croissants warming in the oven for when she got back in. That got me a massive smile.
“Don’t panic. You’ll be fine,” I told her. “Everything’s under control.”
It was. We’d checked the equipment yesterday afternoon, once I was clean-trousered again, and sorted out enough hooks, thread, floss, feathers, wire, glass eyes, pliers, scissors and everything else that would be needed. I’d printed out copies of the instructions of the flies they’d learn to tie. At most they’d get two made, so we’d opted for a woolly bugger and a pheasant tail.
I opened the lodge at eight and we moved some tables into the far corner of the shop. Fi laid the stuff out while I dealt with anglers. She fidgeted nervously until I sent her off for another walk. She came back at quarter to ten, hair tied back and looking very smart in a long-sleeved fishery t-shirt and black leggings and boots.
“Will I do?” she worried, seeing me appraising her.
“You look great,” I reassured her.
Her clients had all arrived by five to ten. I gave them a free coffee then went into the office so that Fi wouldn’t feel I was breathing down her neck. I left the door open a crack so I could see if anyone came into the lodge. And to listen in. I couldn’t help it.
Fi was brilliant, as I’d expected she would be. She sounded confident and she was good at explaining every step. She patiently answered all the usual questions, daft and otherwise, and was encouraging and interesting. On one of my sorties to the till to sell someone something, I glanced over to see how things were going. Fi was leaning over the shoulder of a youngish, thickset guy, demonstrating how to tie down the hackle behind the eye with a few wraps of thread. Her left breast was millimetres away from his right cheek and he look like he died and gone to heaven. Lucky bastard. Several of the group needed a lot of hands-on help from Fi, which was a mite suspicious. She was having to gently correct the way they were holding the thread or pliers or whatever, or lean across them and give helpful pointers. The woolly bugger really is very easy to get the hang of. But she was oblivious to the fact she was being played and they were very satisfied customers. Two of them came straight to the desk to ask about doing another class. And all of them must have started spreading the word when they got home because on Sunday I took ten more bookings for one of Fi’s classes. I emailed Adam to say Fi was already boosting our earnings and got a happy emoticon in return.
“You should set up your own business Fi,” I suggested over tomato flan that night. That was my signature dish. It was a David Lebovitz recipe and it always went down a storm. Fi was particularly impressed. “Fly-tying tuition and massages.”
“At the same time?” she smiled.
“If you like! But seriously, you should. I’ll subcontract all my classes to you, and I’m pretty sure other fisheries would. Overford probably, maybe Tunstall. You’ve got your bike so you’re mobile.”
She looked thoughtful. “I had been vaguely thinking of setting up in massaging,” she confided. “I’ve had a dozen calls this week from some of Damien’s clients asking me if I was working somewhere else and wanting to book up. But, I don’t know, I had a quick look at some really tiny business premises that were suitable and for renting, but they were incredibly dear. I’d have to do like a hundred massages a day to pay for them! Plus I don’t think I could do the accounting side of thing.”
“Entrepreneurship’s in your blood,” I reminded her. “Your dad worked for himself. And he was successful. See. You’ve got the genes.”
“Actually,” said Fi hesitantly. “I haven’t.”