“Well, I’m impressed,” smiled Fi. “Is there anything you’re not good at, Marcus?” “Plenty,” I said firmly. Like getting a woman and being idyllically happy for starters. I busied myself with wiping the counter so that that particular thread of conversation didn’t go any further.
Andy frowned and was about to return the insult when the phone in the office rang.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Back in a tick, gang.”
I picked up the receiver.
“Marcus? It’s Martin.”
Martin, until a month or so ago, had been one of our most regular anglers.
“Martin, where have you been?” I asked. “I’ve been trying to get hold of you for ages. About the trip …”
“Marcus, I can’t come, I’m sorry.” He sounded it.
“Oh?” was all I could say. He was throwing a spanner in the works at a very late stage.
“I need to spend some time with Isabel. We’re, um, going through a rough patch and me heading off for a week-long fishing trip with my mates would not be a good move.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. I was. “No problem. Good luck.”
I put the phone down and joined the others.
“Who was that then?” asked Norm.
“Martin,” I sighed. “He’s pulled out of the trip.”
“What?” exploded Derek. “He can’t do that! He’s our best carper.”
“He can’t come, end of story,” I said firmly.
“It’s that wife of his, isn’t it,” groaned Andy. “She always was a b…”
“He can’t come,” I repeated, glaring at Andy.
“Whatever,” shrugged Andy. “But we’re screwed. We’re a man short and who can we find this late to come with us?”
“When you say a ‘man’ short …” said Derek thoughtfully, looking at Fi.
All eyes turned to her.
“What?” she asked nervously.
“Fi! You’ll come, won’t you?” begged Andy.
She looked at him blankly.
“You’re obviously an ace carpist,” added Derek.
“Will you come on our carp fishing trip in France in three weeks’ time,” I jumped in to explain. “We need a team of six. We have a friendly contest with a gang from another fishery. My mate Rob’s. We go to his cousin’s lake in Limousin. Smashing venue.”
“OK,” nodded Fi, starting to see what we were on about. “And I take it you’re down to a team of five now.”
“Uh-huh,” I confirmed. “Would you fancy being member number six?”
“Well.” She hesitated. “I could come. I love that part of France. And it so happens the sports centre is closing that week for maintenance.”
“You mean the pool’s got another leak?” queried Derek. “It’s like a bloody sieve, that thing.”
“I don’t actually know the details,” Fi admitted. “I was kind of surprised that Damien wanted me to start before the whatever-it-is was done, but he did.” She shrugged. “I was thinking I’d head off on the bike for a few days to check out the area, but fishing in France sounds much more interesting.”
“So?” Three hopeful faces watched her thinking.
“Oh. How much will it cost?” was her next question. “I’m not too well off at the moment.”
“Practically nothing,” grinned Greg.
“Wow, how come?” Fi asked.
“The fishery – i.e. me and Adam – pay for the van hire, petrol and ferry crossing,” I informed her. “Adam gets loads of publicity out of it for the website and I get some material for my column. So we’re happy! This year I have wangled free bait and free beer for the week from Best Baits in return for exclusively stocking their stuff for the next six months in the shop. Their rep is going to call by during the week too, so we’ll get some wine out of him then. Julian lets us have the lake for free in return for loads of photos and a detailed fishing report for his website. So there’s just the food to pay for. It’s usually around a tenner a day.”
“Marcus can rustle up a banquet out of a few handfuls of rice and a couple of carrots, you see!” explained Derek.
“Useful guy to have around,” nodded Andy. “Oh yeah, and he usually wins a couple of hundred quid for extra drink money too.”
“He does? How?” Fi was astonished.
“Our Marcus normally wins the karaoke competition on the ferry. He’s brilliant.” Derek was lavish with praise today.
“Well, I’m impressed,” smiled Fi. “Is there anything you’re not good at, Marcus?”
“Plenty,” I said firmly. Like getting a woman and being idyllically happy for starters. I busied myself with wiping the counter so that that particular thread of conversation didn’t go any further.
“Ooh.” Fi looked thoughtful again. “I don’t have a lot of camping stuff any more.”
“The break-up bonfire I guess?” I hazarded.
“The very same. I’ve got a sleeping bag, but I don’t have a bivvie or a bedchair. Any chance I could hire those off someone?” she asked.
“No problem, I can kit you out with anything you need,” I said. I had plenty of old equipment around the place.
“So?” We looked at her again.
“I’ll do it,” she announced.
“Hooray!” grinned Andy. “Atta girl. “We’ll wipe the floor with those bastards this year. I know it.”
We were lagging behind in the competition – Rob’s lot had outfished us for the past two years. Martin had been our best hope for winning this year. He was just a damned brilliant carper. Even better than me, I hated to say. But now we had Fi. Even if we didn’t win, it would be fun having a girl on the team, and it would give us all a chance to get to know each other better.
“One more thing. Don’t forget your holiday CD,” warned Andy.
“My what?” Fi was puzzled again.
“Marcus’s rule. Everyone brings a CD of their favourite music to play on the way for us all to listen to. And Marcus reckons he can find out all about us from the music we like. Yours will be all soppy women’s stuff though, won’t it?”
“Not necessarily,” retorted Fi. “Wait and see!”
We chatted for quite a while. Fi was so interested in everything and so easy to talk to.
“Well, I can’t put my unpacking off any longer,” she sighed eventually. “I haven’t even unpacked my bedding yet. I slept on the sofa last night!”
“Will you call in next weekend?” I had to ask.
“I’m not sure what my hours will be yet,” Fi admitted. “I’ll do my very best to get to your workshop. But if I can’t, then I’ll definitely be here the next weekend. Look, here’s my mobile number.” She scribbled it down for me. “I should be online again in a few days. And, for good measure, here are my email, Facebook and Twitter addresses.” She added those.
I gave her a fishery card and wrote my email on the back.
“Aren’t you on Facebook?” she asked me.
“Yes, but I don’t really do anything with it,” I confessed. I wrote down what I thought my Facebook name was. “But I’m getting good at Tweeting. That’s more my thing. Isn’t that enough?”
I jotted down my Twitter address.
“Nope. You need to be on top of all the social media these days!” laughed Fi.
We smiled happily at each other for a moment. Good feeling.
“Great!” Fi said eventually. “I’ve had a brilliant day. I feel at home in Haverton already. Thanks guys.”
Then, to everyone’s astonishment, she did that French cheek-kissing thing to all of us, and left.
“Hot chick or what!” observed Andy.
My mobile rang. Somehow I didn’t think it would be Fi already. And it wasn’t. It was Dan Wilson, landlord of the Coach and Horses.
“Marcus, I need a favour. A huge favour.” He cut straight to the point.
“I need you to tinkle the old ivories for me for a couple of hours tonight. I wouldn’t ask you only I’m desperate.”
“Wow, thanks Dan!” I said sarcastically. But it was lost on him. “Kind of short notice, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s not as though you ever go out anywhere,” he said bluntly. It was a slight exaggeration, but only slight. “I’ve only this minute found out there’s some dinner thing at the town hall tonight, so the punters will call by here on their way home. If there’s music, they’ll hang around and buy more drinks. If not, they’ll bugger off round the corner to bloody Bertrand’s bloody winebar and spend their bloody money there, and I bet he hasn’t got a daughter to put through bloody university.” I could hear Dan scowling. “I need someone good, reliable and classy, like you.”
I’d be flattered, but that was just his way of saying ‘available’.
A few years back, I’d had a regular slot as the lounge piano man at Dan’s, but for various reasons, mainly disapproving girlfriend and work related, I’d let it slide. I mainly played for myself these days. I’d loved music. Yeah, it would be fun to an evening on the piano for him again.
“What time?” I sighed.
“Say, from nine to eleven, maybe half past? Can you do that?” pleaded Dan.
“I’ll be there. What are you after?”
“Easy listening stuff for old farts.” Dan treasured his clientele. “80s-90s stuff. Phil Collins, Elton John, Barry Manilow …”
“No Barry Manilow,” I said sternly. “Ever.”
“Well, whatever, you know. Usual stuff. Nice and soppy so they’re all crying into their beer. Plenty of tips for you and business for me then. Cheers, Marcus. See you later!”
A musical night out would do me good. I smiled as I put my phone back in my pocket. But no sooner was it in, than it rang again. I didn’t recognise the number that came up.
There was a puzzled pause. I tried again, more helpfully.
“Hi. Marcus Summers here.”
“Oh, good, I have got the right number,” gushed a relieved man’s voice. “I’m Clive Ellis. Look, you probably won’t remember me, but I’ve often emailed in comments about your column. And I Tweet you a lot. I’m @classyfishingexpert.”
“Sure I remember you, Clive.” And I did. He always sent in coherent and relevant feedback. Unlike some.
“Oh great! Anyway, I was phoning to let you know I might have some interesting information for you soon. You can maybe use it in your column?”
“Oh?” I was intrigued.
“To do with carp smuggling.”
“OK. I’m all ears,” I assured him.
“Well, I’m about to go to France to check a couple of things out, and then I’m pretty sure I’ll have a watertight story for you. There seems to be a very powerful and well organised group of lake owners involved in selling carp to the UK illegally.”
“Seriously? Lake owners involved?”
“Yeah, I know it sounds nuts, but it’s true,” Clive said. “There’s two brothers for definite, and maybe another guy, but I don’t know exactly who he is. Yet. That’s what I’m hoping to suss out on this trip. I’m off to a beautiful view and a dark valley in France, and then possibly finishing up where a noble warrior hangs out in Spain.”
“You’ve lost me, Clive,” I admitted. He was talking in riddles.
He laughed. “Well, once I’ve completed this last factfinding mission, I can be more specific. Do you think you’ll be interested?”
“Of course, but don’t you want to go to the press directly yourself?”
“No, I’m not one for that sort of thing. You’d handle it better. So I’ll get in touch again when I get back, OK?”
“Thanks, yes, brilliant.” This was all a bit much to take in. “But hey,” I added. “Take care. Sounds like they’re a dodgy bunch.”
“I’ll be fine. They’d never suspect someone like me of rumbling them. Talk soon.”
And with that he was gone. I looked at my phone for a moment. That had been slightly weird. Had Clive really got a story, or had he lost the plot? I shrugged. I’d find out soon enough. In the meantime, I had to get rolling.
As usual, I didn’t finish up at the lodge till after half past seven. I did the rounds, picked up some rubbish, netted an injured trout out of the fly lake and dispatched him. Tea was taken care of now. While he fried gently in the pan, I showered and dug out some smart clothes. I didn’t seem to wear those very often these days. I opted for my stonewashed jeans and one of my trademark granddad shirts. I chose a crisp purple cotton one with a black stripe – I needed a bit of a look for tonight. I ran the iron over it quickly. My mother would have been so proud to see how domestically self-sufficient I’d become, of necessity.
I left about quarter past eight. It wouldn’t hurt to get there early for Dan’s sake, plus it would give me time to warm up. I parked in the Coach’s car park and sauntered in. Dan looked relieved to see me.
“There’ll be some bigwigs turning up later,” he told me importantly. “Make me proud.”
“Of course,” I smiled. Then I moved onto the crucial issue. “OK, drink-wise, a whiskey and ginger to start with, then a couple of halves of lemonade during the evening, and another whiskey and ginger half an hour before I finish.” Piano men get free drinks. Well known fact.
“Sorry, no alcohol, Marcus.” Dan shook his head.
“Since when?” I protested, incredulous.
“Since some dickhead guitar player I had in got pissed and got booed off, that’s when. Bloody farce. I’ve bought in a ban.”
“Hmm.” I wasn’t impressed. “We’ll see.”
I threw Dan my jacket to shove somewhere behind the bar and I stalked off to the piano.
I sat down feeling peeved. But then I smiled a wicked smile. I had ways of getting Dan to bring me a whiskey and ginger. He hated musicals, The Sound of Music in particular. So I began by thumping out ‘Eidelweiss’, very loudly and amateurishly. Dan glared at me but that was all. Next I played ‘Chopsticks’. The small cluster of people in the lounge looked at me in pain. I followed with Chopin’s ‘Funeral March’ and was a few bars into a jaunty and discordant version of ‘How do you solve a problem like Maria?’ when a furious Dan swooped. He thumped a Jameson’s and ginger on top of the piano. The glass was stuffed with ice cubes as an anti-inebriation measure I supposed.
“Here you are, you bastard!” he hissed at me. “Now play some proper fucking music.”
I smiled brightly at him. “Bottoms up!” I said and downed the drink in one.
He scowled and strode back to the bar.
“Right!” I announced. I did the arm and finger flexing thing musicians do, winked at a pretty teenager who’d just wandered in and hit the keyboard, properly this time. I began dramatically by rippling down the keys for the start of ‘Don’t like Mondays’. Dan had wanted innocuous old biddy stuff, but sod it, I wanted to play. ‘Drops of Jupiter’, ‘Piano Man’, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, ‘November Rain’ – OK, predictable enough, but I loved all those tunes. The drinks were starting to line up on top of the piano as customers brought them for me. I was on fire tonight!
I took a quick break, chatted to Hannah, the teenager, and started again just before 10. ‘Walking in Memphis’, ‘Philadelphia’, ‘Tonight’, ‘All by Myself, ‘Can’t Live’ – I was into my heartbreak repertoire now. Dan was beaming at me. People were coming in from the bar to listen. The lounge was packed.
And then Chantelle sauntered in. Chantelle loved music and musicians. She came to most of Dan’s music nights, and generally ended up taking one of the performers home with her afterwards (even two every now and again, or so the rumours had it). And yes, I’d been one of her post-gig conquests – a couple of times. Chantelle particularly liked pianists because of their sensitive hands. She was vivacious, pretty, jokey and a complete nutcase. A night with Chantelle was fun, but one at a time was enough. Two would probably kill you.
Her eyes lit up when she saw me at the piano. And I was pleased to see her too. I could do with a night of Chantelle. I’d been celibate for way too long so a no-strings, uncomplicated romp with someone who was after exactly the same thing was just what the doctor ordered. I began to play ‘Feel’, one of her favourites. She sashayed over and plonked herself next to me for the rest of the night, to make sure no other groupies moved in. Hannah was lurking quite close. A few hard stares from Chantelle and she melted away. She was too young for me anyway.
I stopped playing about quarter past eleven and went to the bar with Chantelle for a nightcap.
Dan was delighted. “Everyone loved you,” he beamed. “The Deputy Mayor said what great entertainment tonight. Can we make it a regular thing, Marcus?”
“I’ll see what I can do,” I nodded. I’d had fun, and the hundred quid Dan handed me as I left was an added incentive.
“Be gentle with him!” Dan called after Chantelle as we left the bar. “I’ll need him again in a few weeks’ time!”
“Oh, he’ll have recovered by then,” she riposted with a laugh.
Chantelle and I reeled to her flat. We were both slightly drunk. In fact, my head was starting to throb by the time we got there. Maybe I’d settle for a good snog and then go home to bed and an alka-seltzer. That would be the sensible thing to do. But Chantelle was on her knees and unzipping my flies before I’d even shut the door of her cramped, chaotic flat behind me, so that good intention went the way of most of mine - out of the window rapidly.
Chantelle was a doggie-style girl, which had earned her the unfortunate nickname of ‘Discovery Chantelle’, because of the mammal connection. So I spent a lot of time on my knees that night, either with my hands caressing her ample buttocks or full of her swinging boobs. She was a plump girl and there was plenty of her to fondle. Bliss. Chantelle finally let me fall asleep about four. I had a huge grin on my face. And so did she. I hadn’t lost my touch, thank God.
I got a lot of teasing next morning.
“Well, someone’s had some!” smirked Graham as I eventually made it into the lodge, shortly before nine. I was hassled and rattled. I’d overslept at Chantelle’s and been in a mad rush to get to the fishery. She couldn’t wait to get me out of the door either. She had a low boredom threshold.
“Not necessarily,” I countered casually.
“Yes necessarily,” he persisted. “One, you’re late. Two, you’re not in work clothes. Three, you look knackered, and four, you’ve got that ‘I’ve just had sex’ expression.”
“Who’s just had sex?” asked Adam, mooching in from the office.
“Marcus,” Graham told him.
“Goodness, could you remember what to do?” Adam asked me innocently.
I glared at him. But he had a point. My rolls in the hay were getting fewer and further between.
“Who with?” Graham was blunt. “Oh yeah, you were playing at Dan’s, weren’t you? Let me guess - Discov …”
“Yes, it was Chantelle,” I confirmed, fiddling with the coffee machine. I needed several triple-strength espressos, and fast. But the machine wouldn’t do fast today.
Adam and Graham were grinning at each other.
“Any skin left on your knees?” wondered Adam.
“Shut up and do something,” I told them both, waiting impatiently for my coffee. Actually, my knees were fine. It was my thigh muscles that were complaining like crazy. But my colleagues carried on leering and laughing, so I gave up on my latest giving up campaign, cadged a cigarette off Graham and went outside for a sulky smoke.
The next few days dragged by. I felt deflated. Far from setting me up, my night with Chantelle had made me crave a proper relationship even more than ever. I was sick of being on my own. I was a sociable person. I loved company. I was easy going. I cooked, cleaned and ironed. I was useful to have around. And I’m pretty sure I was fairly handy in bed. What I lacked in skill I more than made up for in enthusiasm and willingness to give anything a go. And I looked moderately OK, apart from the occasionally scary hair.
Fiona flitted into my thoughts regularly. I was certainly looking forward to the fishing holiday and spending time around her. She was getting under my skin. It was a nice but worrying feeling. I hoped she’d make the workshop. That was only ten days away now.
But as it turned out, I saw Fi sooner.
© Rorie Stevens 2011