It was quiet. And warm. I had to fight a couple of times to stay awake. I was pretty much opposite Rob. I watched him for something to do and to keep me awake. He was launching his bait boat for what? About the third time this morning? He was always kind of cagey when he carried it out to the lake, holding it close to him till the very last moment. Why? I narrowed my eyes and watched carefully. He sailed the boat out, but didn’t do a drop and head back, like you’d normally do with a bait boat. He cruised up and down a few times, then seemed to settle on a particular spot, presumably dropped the bait then went back. He whisked the boat out of the water and shoved it back into his bivvie quickly. But not quickly enough. I saw the fish finder under it. Bloody cheat! No wonder they were doing so well! Rob crouched down outside his bivvie to refill the bait bay of the boat.

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Chapter 9  Missed Opportunity

We sauntered off down the busy road that the airport was on, and after about twenty minutes ducked down a smaller one. Another ten minutes and we stumbled across a busy bistro. It was half past nine. We heard the rumble of a plane taking off. Norm was on his way home.

The waiter seated us at a small table by the window. I ordered a 1664 and Fi went for a kir. The drinks arrived within minutes, cold and refreshing.

“This was such a good idea,” I smiled at Fi. “Cheers.”

She chinked her glass against mine and we both drank.

The waiter gave us the menu, but I’d already decided on the ridiculously cheap plat du jour which was chalked up on a board above the bar. Pot au feu, beef stew, would be perfect. Fi went for quiche Lorraine and salad.

We’d been talking about the fishing on our way here, but I felt it was time to change the subject. However, Fi beat me to it.

“When did you get your ear pierced?” she asked conversationally.

I fingered the gold sleeper in my left earlobe.

“When I was thirteen,” I confessed. “I was a teenage rebel!”

“Didn’t your mum mind?”

“She went beserk!” I could laugh about it now. “She’d forbidden me and Paul to get our ears pierced. So off we went and just got one ear done each! Smart bastards that we were. When we got home there was hell to pay though! Mum was all for ripping our earrings out but Dad, for once, stood up for us and said it was only a phase and we’d have stopped wearing them in a few months’ time. But twenty-four years later, I still am!”

“It looks nice,” nodded Fi. She took a sip of her drink. “Did you get on well with your parents when earrings weren’t involved?”

“Dad, yes, when he was around, but it was always complicated with mum,” I sighed. “It was much better the last few years, but there was a lot of guilt so we were never really close.”

“Oh?” Fi was intrigued.

“Well, from age three to fourteen, I was permanently in trouble. I’m not joking, Fi. Every single day! Mum got it into her head that I was disruptive and wicked, and so everything I did, she saw it in that light. If Paul took a toy apart to see what was inside it, he was being scientific. If I did the same thing, and for the same reason, I was a vandal. If Paul was naughty, well, that was only normal for a little boy. If I was naughty, it was because I was evil incarnate! Jeez. And at school I struggled with dyslexia. I got hopeless marks, I misbehaved because I was permanently bored and frustrated, and then I started fighting on Paul’s behalf. Mum saw me headed for Borstal. I spent hours in my room in disgrace.”

“Oh boy, that’s so unfair,” cried Fi.

“Yeah, but it was normal so I got used to it!” I smiled ruefully. “And Paul and I both loved music, but only Paul was allowed to have piano lessons. I was too naughty. So I used to listen outside, and when the teacher had gone, I went in and played everything I’d heard, note for note. Mum told me off to start with, but it finally clicked that this was a bit unusual and pretty impressive. So I had lessons too. I struggled with reading music though, what with being dyslexic, but the teacher concentrated on teaching me to play by ear. And that’s what I’ve done ever since, although I can read music now.”    

“You’re a brilliant musician,” said Fi. “Thank God your mum came round!”

Maybe I should have shut up then but I kept ploughing on.

“And when Paul finally told mum he was gay, well, that was my fault too! I should have let her know her before so she could have ‘dealt with it’. I’d encouraged him! I was the one who had to go up to Scotland to get him to leave Patrick. It scared them to think he was with a guy at all, let alone one so much older. Patrick’s fifteen years older,” I explained. “Of course I didn’t try and split them up. I saw straight away that they were madly in love and incredibly happy, so I stayed with them for a couple of months while we let Mum calm down! Dad was OK about it all, puzzled but accepting.”

“But you got closer with your mum, you say?”

“Yes. For a while.” I had some more lager. “I moved back when Dad was taken ill so I could be around for Mum, and I stayed to sort everything out after he died. It was meant to just be for a short while, but then Paul got sick and she fretted over that. I took her up to Scotland whenever I could to see him. And then he had his collapse and needed the kidney. We were up there, staying with them at the time, so I offered on the spot to be a donor. They did the tests and, not surprisingly, I was a perfect match. The op was set up for the next day. I went back to tell mum and said the transplant was going ahead. She thought that meant it was someone else’s kidney he was getting, because I’d refused or something, and she went nuts. She laced into me about what a disappointment I was, how I owed Paul mine, he deserved to live more than I did, it should have been me that was ill, the worthless one, how selfish I was and God, she let me know what she really thought of me. It was difficult. She realised the truth next day when I had the op, but she’d said stuff she couldn’t unsay. So when I got ill – I was allergic to the antibiotics – she felt sorry and got very wound up. I think that’s maybe what helped her to the stroke which killed her a few weeks later. She’d always said I’d be the death of her. I think I was in the end.”

I shrugged. It was upsetting to talk about it. I’d tried to be a good son, but I didn’t seem to have done very well.

Fi looked at me, wide-eyed in disbelief.

“Jeez, I’m sorry Fi!” I rubbed my hand across my face. Bloody hell, I shouldn’t have unloaded all my demons onto her. “I didn’t know I was going to come out with all that! Just forget it.” 

But Fi was determined not to. “How could she have said that about you, Marcus? She was your mum. She should know you better than anyone. She didn’t know you at all! And of course you didn’t kill her. Oh God, I can’t believe your own mother …” She couldn’t put it into words.

Our meals arrived at that point, probably just as well.

“Families can be funny things, Fi,” I said dismissively. “Anyway, bon appétit.” I picked up my knife and fork to tuck in. But Fi was still gazing at me in outrage at what I’d told her.

“Marcus, I honestly think you are the kindest, least self-centred person I have ever met. You’re a good, good man. For whatever reason, your mum didn’t see the true you. But I’m pretty sure everyone else does. I know I do.”

I didn’t trust myself to speak for a moment. I stared hard at my plate of food.

“Thanks,” I managed finally. I looked up at her. She was smiling that gorgeous smile of hers. I drowned in those green eyes. “So, what were your parents like?”

“Brilliant!” she summed up simply. “Lovely, normal people and great parents. God, they’d have rows, of course. And I joined in sometimes too! They’d yell for a while, but then it was all over and forgotten about. Back to happy. No simmering grudges, no sulks. I had a really happy childhood, apart from losing mum, obviously. Dad started drinking a lot after Mum died, but he realised that could have a bad effect on me, so he got on top of it. It wasn’t easy but he did it. We had good times together. I went a bit wild when I turned sixteen, I’m ashamed to say. Dad didn’t approve but he didn’t lecture. He knew I’d get through it and calm down and I did. He saw at my best again before his cancer got the better of him.”

“Poor you,” I said, “to lose them both when you were so young.”

Fi shrugged. “It’s what happened. I grew up a bit faster than most people, that’s all.”

She turned her attention to her food. “Oh wow, this is awesome. Nearly as good as your tomato flan, but not quite.”

“Aw shucks,” I grinned.

“It’s true. Here, try some.”

She offered me a forkful of quiche. I glanced around. Food exchange seemed to a normal French activity so I joined in.

“You’re right. Not as good as mine! This stew’s nice though.”

And we chatted away about food and other things for another hour while we sat at the restaurant. But, we had to get back at some point. I didn’t seem to have done a fat lot of fishing this holiday for various reasons. We were down a team member so we should be putting  extra rod time in to give ourselves a fighting chance. So I paid for us both, despite Fi’s protests, and we walked slowly back to the airport to retrieve Julian’s Renault, still talking.

I wondered a couple of times en route about kissing Fi. I was totally captivated by her now. The more I got to know her, the more I fell for her. I ached to see her naked again – voluntarily naked for me this time. And I was pretty sure she liked me. She regularly said nice stuff about me. So should I try it on? Or maybe it wasn’t the best time, on a fishing holiday with ten other blokes. Well, nine now Norm had gone. It wouldn’t go down too well with the others, I couldn’t help thinking. No, I should wait till we got back. But nothing was going to stop me then.

We climbed into the chilly Renault. Fi negotiated us successfully out of the city and onto our autoroute. I took it steady since I was tired, but mainly because I wasn’t in a hurry for the trip to end.

We carried on talking for a while. Fi told me more about her holidays in France with her gran, Mamie, and about the cat fishing holiday she’d been on in Spain with an ex. How many exes had there been? Quite a lot, I imagined, looking at Fi. I was going to be her next guy though. No two ways about it.

“Hey, we still haven’t heard your CD, have we?” Fi suddenly realised. “Is it here?”

She began to poke around in the pile of CDs I’d put in the front storage compartment of the Renault.

“Should be,” I said. “Yeah, shove it on and see what you can find out about me.”

“I think I’ve got you sussed already,” she smiled at me, “but let’s listen anyway.”

I hadn’t put as much time into my CD as I usually did, thanks to the crazy summer we’d had and the increased unhelpfulness of Adam. I’d stumbled across some good but relatively unknown groups during the year, and had put some of their tracks on, but I’d run out of time and filled up with more predictable stuff like Linkin Park, ManGa, Nickelback, Train and Madame K. I enjoyed listening and sang along quietly to help keep me lively.

“So, what’s the verdict?” I asked, when it was over, and glanced over to Fi.

She was fast asleep. I smiled, and played the CD over twice more before we got home.

Not surprisingly, I didn’t surface very early next day. We’d got in about 3 am. I’d dropped Fi down to the lake, then driven back up to the house to leave the Renault and post the keys through the door in case Julian or Carla needed the car before I got up. None of the anglers had been awake so I didn’t get a chance to find out how the contest was coming on. I’d heard someone’s bite alarm go off around fiveish but couldn’t be bothered to get up and see what was going on.

I left everyone to self-cater for breakfast, but around ten a strong smell of coffee tickled me awake. It was Fi, pushing a mug of concentrated caffeine into my tent.

“Yo!” I croaked sleepily.

“Hey sleepyhead!” she called, unzipping the door a bit more and peering in. “How are you?”

“Too early to tell!” I admitted. “Thanks for coffee – and for last night. It was fun.”

“I’m sorry I fell asleep – I wasn’t much company for you.” She pulled a face.

“It’s OK. It was a long ride. It was just nice having someone in the car with me.” And it had been. I spent way too much time completely alone normally. “How’s the fishing?”

“That’s why I’m waking you up, I’m afraid,” she confessed. “We’re not doing so well. We need you out here landing some monsters for us.”

I groaned.

“How far ahead are they?”

“102 lbs.”

“Shit!” I sat up. “Not really?”

“Really.”

Bugger. We were going to get hammered.

“Give me five minutes,” I sighed.

“OK boss!”

It was a grey, misty morning when I emerged from my bivvie. God, I was wrecked. The driving had been tiring. But, it was good fishing weather so I needed to get myself going. I wandered up to the cabin but the vultures had swooped and eaten all the croissants and pain chocolats that were meant to last till the end of the week. There were just crumbs on plates on the table. I made do with a few slices of very tough, leftover baguette and a smear of butter. I’d have to fit in another run to the supermarket today, but I didn’t fancy that at all. I’d bribe someone else to go.

I opened the gas fridge to see what else we might need. The thing was practically bare! Holy crap. There’d been food for two evening meals in there when I’d last looked in it, not long before setting off with Norm and Fi. How could nine blokes in one sitting eat enough food for twenty-four?

Rob ambled in. Really bad timing.

“What the hell has happened to all the food?” I demanded.

He shrugged. “We ate it! We were peckish.”

“Yes, but that was for two days!”

“Oops.”

I glowered at him. I wasn’t at my best today.

“I’ll go shopping later,” he soothed.

I continued glowering.

“OK, I’ll go shopping now. Well, about half an hour.”

“You’d bloody better.” I managed a small smile.

“What are you doing back anyway?” asked Rob.

“What d’you mean?” I was puzzled.

“We-ell, didn’t think we’d be seeing you and Fi back till midday.” He looked shifty.

“Poitiers is only four hours away,” I reminded him.

“Yes, but we reckoned you’d be staying overnight somewhere. To break the journey. You know, with Fi? It’s pretty clear you’ve got the hots for each other. None of us have got anywhere with her this week. You’re the only one she’s interested in, you fucking lucky bastard!”

I looked at him blankly. Then I groaned. Christ, it had never occurred to me to lure her off to bed. What kind of moron was I?

“I thought I’d better get the Renault back for Julian,” I said lamely.

“Idiot!” grinned Rob.

“Do you really think she’s interested in me?” I asked hesitantly.

“I know so,” nodded Rob. “Go for it, mate. You’re made for each other. And it’s about time you stopped being a bloody miserable sod of a bachelor.”

“That’s for sure,” I agreed.

I wondered thoughtfully back to my bivvie, torturing myself. Damn. Why hadn’t I seized the day yesterday with Fi. Carpe diem. Step up, Marcus.

It was quiet. And warm. I had to fight a couple of times to stay awake. I was pretty much opposite Rob. I watched him for something to do and to keep me awake. He was launching his bait boat for what? About the third time this morning? He was always kind of cagey when he carried it out to the lake, holding it close to him till the very last moment. Why? I narrowed my eyes and watched carefully. He sailed the boat out, but didn’t do a drop and head back, like you’d normally do with a bait boat. He cruised up and down a few times, then seemed to settle on a particular spot, presumably dropped the bait then went back. He whisked the boat out of the water and shoved it back into his bivvie quickly. But not quickly enough. I saw the fish finder under it. Bloody cheat! No wonder they were doing so well! Rob crouched down outside his bivvie to refill the bait bay of the boat.

Fi wondered past with a cup of tea. I beckoned to her. She smiled and came over.

“Pretend to be deep in conversation with me,” I told her, “but watch what Rob’s up to.”

“OK.” She sat down next to me. “What would you like to pretend talk about?”

“The fish finder in their bait boat.”

“Their what?” Fi looked surprised.

“Fish finder. I’ve only just seen it. It’s on the bottom. That’s why Rob has been so sneaky with the damned thing all week. I thought he was feeling a bit guilty about using it at all. I didn’t realise it was armed and dangerous.”

“Is it against the rules?” asked Fi. “I mean, are there rules for this week?”

I looked at her. She had a point. “No, not really. We’ve never said you can’t use a fishfinder, but it’s a bit sneaky and pretty pathetic when it’s only a friendly competition.”

“Which is about to get unfriendly?” suggested Fi.

“Damn right!” I nodded. “It’s underhand, especially now that we’re a man down.”

“What’s the plan then?”

“We disable it. I’m not sure when or how, though, that’s the problem.”

We watched Rob push the bait boat out and start steering it. Like before, he didn’t head directly to one spot for a drop, but meandered about for a while first.

“Yep, I’m convinced now,” nodded Fi.

I’d been thinking. “We’ll strike tonight. We’ll wait till he’s asleep and nab it out of his tent.”

Fi nodded approval.

“Now, go and catch a million fish, Fi,” I urged her. “We are not going to lose this year.”

“OK boss,” she replied.

Greg wandered by, mobile glued to his ear. “No Mum, I’m fine. Alive and kicking as you can hear. Yeah, you too. Bye.”

He snapped his phone shut, saw me watching him and rolled his eyes.

“My mum heard on the news that they’d found some English carp angler’s body in a river in Limousin. She’s thinks it’s quite close by here. So she was checking it wasn’t me,” he explained.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Dunno,” he shrugged. “Mum’s a bit vague about it all. Someone found him drowned with his head bashed in. They think he was drunk and fell in and hit his head on a rock under the surface.”

“Hmm. I didn’t think there was that much carping in rivers round here,” I observed. “Shame. Poor guy.”

“Yeah. Makes you think. I might just ease up on the beers,” Greg confessed, looking rattled.

Like that was going to happen.

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