“So, it’s still a long while since you went out with someone then?” Fi asked. “Sadly yes,” I nodded, conveniently forgetting about Chantelle again. “How about you?” “Still living like a nun,” she confirmed. Fi took a swig of wine and a drag on the joint. I couldn’t imagine many nuns doing that. “Don’t you miss sex?” she asked suddenly. Had she really just said that? And if only she knew!

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Chapter 7  Cat Fight

Fishing is a good sex substitute. Not if you put them side by side, of course. If a beautiful, naked, sex-starved woman (or man, if that’s the preference) came prancing along the bank just as an angler was about to cast, well, I don’t think it’s the fish that would get pulled. But as a way of keeping your mind happily and busily off the subject for a period of time, it works well. At least it usually did for me, but this week with Fi close by, it was rubbing my nose in it. 

I’d once done a column about why fishing was better than sex, coming up with daft reasons like the fact that a fish will never post embarrassing video footage of you on Youtube; you don’t have to hide your fishing magazines; you can have as many fishing partners, including total strangers, as you want, and how if you catch something when you’re fishing it’s good, but if you do the same when you’re having sex, well, that’s bad. That was one of my most popular articles. It was a shame it wasn’t true.

Fishing-wise we were hanging onto our lead over Rob’s team, but only just. He was the star of their group, bringing in about a fish an hour. It was getting annoying. No-one else was catching as regularly, and he didn’t have the best spot.

We left about ten on Tuesday morning to go into Coussac. All my team came except Greg, but only Liam and Phil from Rob’s. We were still marginally ahead on the fishing front after a quiet night, so they were presumably hoping to sneak a few more in while we were gone. Greg was on hand to check there was no skulduggery.

We drove to the small supermarket for our shopping. We didn’t need a great variety of items – just a large quantity of each, so that was fairly quick to do. Beer, coke, ice-tea for Fi, steacks hachés, sausages, cheese, crisps, potatoes, bread, lardons (the closest thing to rashers we could find), baguettes, eggs, salad, instant coffee, milk, sugar. And a bit more beer. We loaded that into the vans then headed into the centre of Coussac in convoy and parked in the central square, right outside the café bar we frequented every year. We grabbed a couple of tables outside and sent Andy in to buy the drinks. Derek was despatched to the newsagents to stock up on replacement cigarettes. I went in to help Andy carry the drinks.

When we came out, Norm and Liam were asking Fi the French words for all kinds of stuff. They were still doing it ten minutes later. It must have been bugging the heck out of her - it was certainly getting on my nerves - but she replied good humouredly each time.

“What’s French for weed?” asked Liam this time.

“Le shit,” Fi told him. “But you pronounce it ‘sheet’.”

“Le sheet,” tried Liam.

“Voila!” smiled Fi.  

“And cocaine?”

“Cocaïne, I think?” she shrugged. “But hey, I’m no expert. Can we get off the drugs theme?”

“OK,” shrugged Liam.

“What’s French for orgasm?” asked Andy.

I glared at him. Sex was a subject we really need to keep off. Fi seemed to want to keep off it too.

“You know what,” announced Fi, getting up with a smile. “I’m going to check out the tourist office over there. Back in a tick.”

“Think I’ll take a stroll too,” said Liam, a bit too casually.

“I’ll come with you,” offered Andy, and the pair of them headed off in the other direction. They were up to something.

I watched Fi go. It was an unseasonably warm day and she was in her tiny shorts, a white vest and a baggy hoodie. She looked great.

It was nice sitting out in the autumn sunshine with my crazy mates, enjoying hot French coffee in my case, and cold French lager in the others’. I idly watched the passers-by. Over-made-up fifty-something women with dogs tucked under the arms or skipping along behind them on a lead. Thickset, scruffy farmers in wellies striding to the hardware shop for a bull debollocker or sheep nipple remover. Small, immaculately dressed children in buggies clutching fluffy toys. It was all so familiarly foreign.

A quarter of an hour later, I saw Fi coming back, her breasts bouncing merrily beneath her tight-fitting vest. That was even more interesting to watch than French life. Liam and Andy mooched back shortly afterwards too. They looked smug.

Fi had a handful of leaflets.

“There’s not a great deal still open,” she sighed. “The tourist season is short round here. But the castle is nice, apparently. It has some very rare tapestries.”

“Maybe there’ll be time later in the week to call by,” I told her.

“That would be cool,” she smiled. “But I appreciate we’re here to fish!”

“Yeah, so we should get back,” I announced. “Come on my team. Liam and Phil, stay here all day!”

“No chance,” grinned Phil. “There’s a fifty-pounder waiting for me!”

We’d bought both vans. Norm and Fi came in with me. Andy headed straight back, but I took a small detour through the older part of Coussac. I had an idea there was a statue in a small park just out of the cenre of the town, so we swung by to see. Sure enough, there sat the philosopher Pierre Leroux in stony silence on a large marble plinth.

“Can you pull in a sec!” begged Fi.

I did as commanded and she jumped out and raced into the park. She walked round the statue a few times, studying it thoughtfully. Then she smiled, climbed back in and we carried on our way.

“So what’s the verdict?” I asked.

“Poor old Pierre definitely needs brightening up!”

She busied herself with her thoughts and Norm and I chatted the rest of the way back. Fi and Rob helped me rustle up cheese and crisp half-baguettes for everyone for dinner. We talked about our mornings as we sat around over our beers afterwards. Phil had caught a 17 lb grass carp and a 2 lb roach, which Greg confirmed, but that was all the action there’d been.

It was a slow afternoon and evening. We only got a handful of fish between us. The highlight of the night was supper. I did the steack hachés with potatoes baked in foil in the barbie tray and a huge salad. It went down well. No-one was in a hurry to go back to their pegs, so we hung around together as dusk fell. Phil, Greg, Josh and Mike played cards. Liam took a beer and wandered off to sit over the slipway and smoke. Shortly afterwards a very distinctive-smell wafted back to us. Pot.

Rob gave a strangled cry, then jumped up and strode over to Liam. We all watched in fascination.

“Please tell me you didn’t bring that stuff with you through customs,” cried Rob in horror, gesturing at Liam’s joint. “Holy crap, we’d have been in really deep shit if they’d sniffer-dogged it out.”

“Don’t be stupid, as if I’d do that,” Liam sounded offended. “I got it here. This morning.”

“What?” Rob looked incredulous

“Yeah, Fi told me what French for weed was so I asked a few likely-looking people I met if they had any. I came to a good deal with some teenagers,” Liam explained.

“Christ, you mean you went round Coussac accosting total strangers and demanding pot? Bloody hell, they could have been plain clothes detectives or the mayor’s son or … or …” Rob was apoplectic.

I beamed at my team. I felt proud of them for not being as moronic as Rob’s.

“I don’t know what you’re looking so smug about,” glowered Rob. “Looks like Andy’s got quite a stash too.”

Sure enough, Andy was leaning against the big tree rolling spiffs. I rolled my eyes.

“Oh well,” I shrugged. “Looks like we got away with it this time.”

Rob strode off angrily to find comfort in his carp rods. That broke the party up and a few people started drifting off.

“Whoops!” grinned Liam. “He’ll be all right soon. Who wants some ‘sheet’ then?”

“My stuff’s better,” claimed Andy and threw a joint at me. I caught it gratefully.

“Do you do this every year?” asked Fi.

“No, first time, but then it’s the first time Liam’s come along,” I said. “And I expect it will be his last! Rob is really pissed.”

“Yes, I noticed that,” smiled Fi.

“So, will you join me?” I asked, getting my lighter out. “Actually, probably not,” I realised. “You’re not a smoker.”

“Ah, pot’s different,” smiled Fi. “And anyway, I have no intention of being the party pooper by being the only one stone-cold un-high.”

“Yeah, that’s Rob’s job,” I told her.

“So, pass the dutchie on the left hand side,” she chanted. “Actually, hang on, I’ll get my last rod in. I won’t be able to run that far quickly under the influence. Back in a tick.”

She hurried off. I brought two of mine in, leaving just the one pointing to below the trees on the island. I had high hopes for that rod. There were plenty of bubbles around that point during the day.

Fi soon returned. She plumped herself down next to me at the entrance of my bivvie. I lit up and let her take the first drag.

“Nice,” she said, exhaling slowly. “Now, don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t do this very often.”

“Nor me. Only when I’m in with this lot!”

“They’re a cool crowd though, aren’t they?” she said. “Really good guys, straightforward, no bullshit. My kind of people.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” I agreed. “I hate pretentious people.”

“Like Adam,” shuddered Fi.

“You said it,” I laughed. Then I sighed. “I wish we did get on. We used to. It makes work hard sometimes. Maybe we’ll get through it. Hey, do you want some wine? I picked up a nice bottle of red today.”

“When you say ‘nice’, do you mean it cost more than one euro?”

“Yes, this was 2.95, scary!”

“Should be classy stuff then,” concluded Fi. “Count me in.”

I handed her the joint and opened the wine.

“I forgot to pack the lead crystal wine goblets, so will a plastic cup do?” I asked.

“Perfectly,” said Fi.

I handed her a cup. “Santé,” I toasted.

“Santé.”

We drank some wine and watched the sunset over the trees and water tower in the distance. The bats began to sweep over the lake surface and there were a few rustles in the undergrowth somewhere behind us. Other than that, and the guys’ voices floating over the lake, it was still and quiet.

“This is nice,” sighed Fi. “I’m so glad I came.”

“Me too,” I said fervently. “Do you ever think of moving to France? You know, being half French.”

“Whenever I’m here,” she admitted. “I think, ‘wow, what a great country’, but when I get back home I kind of forget. Get sucked in by everything.” 

“Know what you mean,” I agreed.

We slipped into amiable silence again.

“So, anyone missing you this week?” asked Fi suddenly.

“Just Adam. He doesn’t like being left to deal with bolshy lawnmowers and annoying customers,” I grinned. “How about you?”

“Not a soul.” Fi sighed. “So, it’s still a long while since you went out with someone then?” she went on, obviously remembering our conversation in my car from the judo night.

“Sadly yes,” I nodded, conveniently forgetting about Chantelle again. “How about you?”

“Still living like a nun,” she confirmed.

Fi took a swig of wine and a drag. I couldn’t imagine many nuns doing that.

“Don’t you miss sex?” she asked suddenly.

Had she really just said that? And if only she knew!

“You’re direct, aren’t you!” I exclaimed, laughing.

“Sorry,” she apologised, pulling a face. “I have a big, foot-shaped mouth!”

It was time to confess. I sighed. “Yeah, I do. But there are alternatives.”

It occurred to me hazily that I must be pretty far gone to be having this conversation. Talking about sex, especially with a woman I really wanted to have it with but who didn’t know I did, would normally have left me way out of my comfort zone.

“Alternatives?” queried Fi. “You mean, like hobbies and stuff?”

“No, I mean porn videos and a good firm wrist action,” I told her.

Fi burst out laughing. “I get you!” she grinned. “Yeah, I have a battery-powered alternative!”

Holy shit, that made me feel hot under the collar. How did we get onto this subject in the first place? I was too fuddled to remember.

“Here’s a toast to alternatives!” I declared, chuckling, raising my nearly empty plastic cup. I should really slow down or I’d feel like hell tomorrow. Ah, who cared?

“Cheers!” said Fi, bashing her cupful of wine clumsily against mine. It spilt which just made us giggle more.

“Jeez, you two had better come and join us for some coffee before you get totally wasted,” smirked Andy, walking past on his way back from the shower to the cabin. Julian had kept his word and got the thing working.

Fi refilled our cups while I brought my rod in and got my guitar, and we wandered over to the lodge. Most of the guys were back there now, smoking and drinking. The conversation drifted to and fro, I played a few songs, we toasted some marshmallows provided by Phil on sticks round the fire, Fi sat next to me all evening - it was a pretty brilliant night.

About midnight, just as people were starting to wander, Norm gave a shout.

“Got something big!”

We all stumbled over to his swim. We gathered round with our headlamps and looked out over the lake. Not much to see yet, but as Norm began to reel in, a shiny back broke the water about halfway. It was very grey and very long.

“Bloody hell!” cried Norm. “It’s a cat.”

“No way!” protested Rob. “His mouth would have gone through your leader.”

“Twenty says it’s a cat!” grinned Norm.

“You’re on.”

I ran to my bivvie and got my biggest net, just in case. Norm’s wasn’t as generously sized as mine. By the time I got back, Rob looked grumpy. It was a catfish on Norm’s line.

“What did you get him on?” asked Andy.

“Halibut boilie,” panted Norm, working hard to bring the fish in. “I bought a few with me.”

“Good move,” nodded Derek.

We waited eagerly for the moment when Norm landed the catfish.

“I didn’t even know there was one in there!” admitted Greg.

“Even Julian wasn’t sure,” I told him. “He put a 35 lber in about seven years ago and hasn’t seen it since. Which either meant it was growing happily or it was dead. However, he’s never had a crayfish problem in this lake, which pointed towards the cat being alive and well.”

“Shouldn’t we go and get Julian?” asked Fi.

“God, never thought of that!” I admitted. “Yeah, we should. D’you think he’d answer his phone this time of night?”

“Not sure. He might not even hear it,” Fi shrugged.

“I’ll drive up and get him,” I offered. I should be able to drive in a straight enough line. “Norm, don’t get that bugger out till I get back!”

“Sure thing, mate,” gasped Norm. “He’s not ready to come quietly for a while yet.”

I grabbed the keys, leapt into the van and tore up the track to the farmhouse. A light was on upstairs so I thumped on the door and shouted. I hoped I wasn’t waking them up, although it was probably worth it.

I heard Julian clumping down the stairs. He threw open the door.

“Christ! What’s happened?” He looked alarmed.

“No panic,” I soothed him. “Norm’s got the cat!”

Julian looked stunned. “Seriously?”

“Yup. Come on, I’ll bring you down.”

“Hang on, I’ll get Carla, and the camera. Thirty seconds, OK?”

Julian shot off and reappeared with a delighted Carla. They pulled coats on over their pyjamas, kicked off their slippers and jumped into wellies, then raced with me to the van. They both had cameras. Clearly this was a moment they wanted to record for posterity.

We got to Norm’s swim to find he was still bringing the cat in. Only a few more metres.

“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Julian.

He was right to be impressed. It was a big cat. Its long body undulated through the water, just below the surface. You could see his upper barbels. He was beautiful.

“How big is that!” breathed Carla.

“Maybe 80 lbs?” I hazarded.

“I’d say closer to 90,” observed Rob.

“Bloody hell!” repeated Julian. It was true to say he was lost for words.

“Are you ready, mate?” Norm looked at his shoulder at me. “I’ll need a hand with him.”

“Sure.”

I lowered my supersize net into the water and slipped in after it. Phil joined me. It would take the two of us to heave that monster out. Norm brought him in close and we dipped the net under him. Together Phil and I lifted the net up. The fish lay quietly. He was stunning – long, sinewy silvery grey body, six quivering barbels and impressive jaws. Rob and Greg took the net from us and laid the fish carefully on the two landing mats Fi had spread out ready. Norm laid down his rod and knelt down to look at his prize.

“Bloody hell.” Julian’s needle was still stuck.

“He’s amazing!” Fi knelt down next to Norm. “And enormous. Well done, Norm.”

“Come on, weigh the bugger,” urged Andy.

“Yes, but how? He won’t fit in my weigh sling.” Norm frowned.

“Here you are, I reckon mine’s big enough.” Mike had thoughtfully gone round to fetch his.

“Cheers mate.” Norm was happy again.

I helped him manoeuvre the cat onto the sling. It was a fantastic fish. I suspected Norm had me beaten with him.

“Ninety-two is the number to beat,” I gasped as we lifted the sling carefully to hang from the weigh tripod. The cat lashed his tail suddenly and the tripod wobbled, but Rob grabbed it so it didn’t fall.

“Come on, mate, hold still,” begged Norm.

The needle was swinging from the mid 80s to the mid 90s, but , as the fish calmed for an instant, it settled on 87 lbs. I felt quietly superior. 

“Awesome!” cheered Julian.

“Mad,” approved Liam.

Carla had been shooting off hundreds of photos. Most of the others had taken photos on their cameras or iPods. Now Norm took some on his camera, and I took a few of him next to his cat, which was safely back on the padded landing mats.

“That’s enough,” said Norm. “Got to get him back in the water.”

Norm and I quickly but gently rolled him back into the net. This time Norm climbed in with Phil, and Rob and I handed the net to him. Norm and Phil lowered the net so water swirled over the catfish. He lay there for a moment or two then began to get his energy back. The lads tilted the net so that beautiful creature could swim easily out of it without catching himself. He was off like a shot, just a cloud of silt left behind. We watched silently. 

“This calls for champagne!” announced Julian suddenly.

“Damn right!” agreed Carla.

“I’ll run you up to get it,” offered Andy. I was a bit on the soggy side to be the taxi this time. 

Talking excitedly, the three of them headed to his van.

Norm was still trembling.

“Fuck!” he said happily, lighting a cigarette with shaking hands. “Fuck!”

“Bloody brilliant, mate.” Derek slapped him on the back. The rest of us shook his hand and Fi gave him a kiss on the cheek.

“Cheers, darling,” grinned Norm. “Wait till I tell the kids in the morning. They’ll be proud of their dad.”

“I bet they’re always proud of you,” Fi pointed out.

How is it woman always come out with nice things like that? It would never occur to a bloke in a million years.

By the time Norm, Phil and I had got changed into dry things, Julian was back with the champagne. Carla had rustled up some crisps and nuts to go with them. I got a campfire going and we sat round for another hour, reliving Norm’s moment of glory twenty times over. It was cold. Fi plopped down next to me and hutched up close to me for warmth.

It had gone from a pretty brilliant night to a beyond brilliant night.

Of course, next morning, it didn’t seem so perfect. We all had splitting heads, a result of too much alcohol, and for most of us, an unaccustomed dose of pot. I felt my extra ten years too. The others mostly perked up by midday, but I was still struggling. Fi noticed and brought me some coffee about two o’clock.

“Thanks,” I smiled. “I think I’m getting too old for fishing holidays!”

“No, you’re just too old for drink and drugs holidays!” she corrected me, laughing.

“That could be it,” I nodded. “Just fishing from now on.”

“Wise decision,” she agreed. “Why don’t you have a nap? The lake’s quiet.”

“At the risk of sounding like somebody’s granddad, that’s a great idea,” I sighed. “Forty winks will do  me good.”

“See you later, then,” said Fi, and kissed my cheek.

“That was nice!”

Fi may have blushed slightly. “A sleep tight kiss.”

Then she walked back to her bivvie. I crashed out on my bedchair. Old fogeydom, here I come, I thought as I dropped off.

 

 

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