The Away Match

by John Buckley

Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day, teach a man to fish and hell store maggots in the fridge and introduce you to the wormery that now adorns your back garden.

Hell talk to you about wagglers and bottom feeders and concoct horrid things called boilies in the kitchen and hell tell you how he wrestled with a carp for half-an-hour before holding it his arms triumphant and I wouldnt be an anglers wife if I didnt try to remember when we last wrestled and he had held me, sated and victorious.

Hell disappear Saturdays and Sundays and week nights in summer and hell cart more clobber towards some distant river bank than explorers used to take on an expedition to Africa.

Most ludicrous of all will be his choice of clothing, namely a camouflage jacket and trousers.

Do you think the fish are watching for you, you daft bugger? I asked Dan as he set out one morning better dressed for a mission in Afghanistan than a morning at a fishery just up the road. Maybe wildlife has evolved more quickly than I imagined and tench now have periscopes or set lookouts, like meerkats.

Im after pike today, he said, as if that explained anything at all. In case you didnt know, pike are the thugs of freshwater. They make piranha look like angel fish.

Oh, do be careful, I said. Sarcasm may be the lowest form of wit, but it was still over Dans head.

Maggots in the fridge? They are not loose, you understand and the cold their delays their pupation.

Dan was not just smitten with fishing, he was devoured by it. I have heard of golf widows, but those poor dears at least live in a civilised household and the worst they have to endure is a pair of Rupert Bear trousers turning up in the wardrobe. Besides most women would get themselves down to the club and play a round. Faced with every weekend to myself that is what I decided to do. Not take up golf, but play around.

In a way it was Dans fault. He set things in motion by asking me to pop to the All In Tackle Shop and pick up a pint of maggots. A pint? Apparently so. I was about to ask how he expected me to carry a glassful of wriggling maggots home when he handed me a plastic box with a fastened down lid and air holes for the little darlings. If only the inventor of Tupperware could see how he had changed the world for the better.

Dan has been fishing for eight years of the ten we have been married and to be fair he has always kept his tackle in good order, if you see what I mean. That is all his gear rods, poles, baskets, seats, boxes - the lot - are always returned to their proper places in the garage after an outing and he was getting better at it, too. At times you could hardly tell theyd been used at all. Not that Im the fastidious sort, but ask him to pick up the Hoover well, dont get me started.

****

Dan, I have to tell you because its important, is a matchman. That is he contests angling matches and matches are when a lot of anglers compete against each other to see which one is the luckiest.

Anyway, so when I entered the All In clutching my little plastic box, I wasnt entirely an innocent in the ways of Dans world and there he was not Dan but Derek, master of the All In, successful businessman and a fine example to angling manhood he was too. Still is, come to that, credit where its due.

Good looks, half-decent body. Well, at least not as much paunch as Dan. Thats the thing with the sport of angling, it leaves its competitors in a worse state physically than when they started. Nicotine is its performance enhancing drug of choice. Dan saw sense and gave up, but a lot of anglers do smoke. It can get boring, Dan admitted, sitting, waiting, watching. Then why not take up something exotic and exciting, like dominoes or snail racing? Hed given up and was a little overweight. He reckoned it was his age, but that didnt account for where his sense of humour had gone. He used to be a right laugh. All those weekends spent on the riverbank pretending you werent there takes a heavy toll. Maybe All In-Derek worked out. He could get away with wearing a white T-shirt that his bore the slogan: Anglers Like It All In. So, cheeky too. He was about forty, which made him about eight years or so older than me and Dan.

He was checking his phone, but he casually put it down. His face broke into a broad smile when he saw me and it said he liked what he saw. Some men can look at you that way. So you know. Its a knack they should take on Britains Got Talent. I asked for Dans maggots and pushed the little box across the counter and his hand brushed mine as he prised off the lid. Was that deliberate? I could feel a flush coming to my face and he asked me who the maggots were for and I told him and he said how he knew Dan and thought he was a good angler and then he asked my name, straight out like that, and I said Heather and he said hello Heather, are you lucky Heather? I felt all schoolgirlish inside. Like there was a giggle trapped in my tummy. Im still breathless just thinking of that first meeting.

Lucky in love and money. I replied. Dont know why I said that because I dont know that Ive been that lucky in either.

What else is there? asked Derek.

He asked what I did with myself when Dan was fishing and he managed to make it sound so intimate all the silliness drained out of me and I pulled myself together and prepared to leave, giving him a smile in response because I didnt know what to say.

Theres no charge for the maggots, said Derek. Tell Dan to put it down as sponsorship.

He picked up his mobile then, working it with his thumb.

No charge for the maggots? A girl knows when a man is coming on to her.

****

Free maggots, eh? said Dan with the joy of saving a quid or two. Ill send you again next week. Which is what he did. He made a list and I discovered I was only eager to run along with it. The week passed in its usual humdrum fashion, a normal week by anyones standards except ours was built around angling matches, the preparation for, the participation in and the reporting of. Hey ho.

Derek, mobile to his ear, flashed a smile that this time said he was surprised to see me, but all the happier for it. He end the conversation, abruptly I thought and when his phone rang again immediately, he pressed a button that shut it up. He was full of unspoken compliments today. I passed him the list and he gathered the items together, putting them on the counter along with an airholed plastic box.

Whats this? I asked.

Red maggot, he said. For Dan, he explained just in case I thought they might be for me. And, in a way, I knew they were.

Red maggot? This was getting serious.

A sensible married woman would have stopped it there and firmly said thanks very much but you cannot woo me with your live bait and left the shop head held high. But I didnt, of course. I stopped at the door as if I had suddenly thought of something, turned and said: What do you suggest I get Dan for his birthday? Something passed between us in that moment and it made the course of events that followed inevitable. There wa sno hesitation: Has he got a bivouac? Derek asked.

Had he? Id no idea what one was.

A sort-of tent, Derek explained. Ive got all sorts in the showroom upstairs, bivouacs, tents, camp beds, mattresses Come back about three, I close the shop then and Ill be happy to show you what Ive got.

Id taken the bait and I was being reeled it.

It was on a blow-up mattress under a canopy that we consummated our affair and then he showed me what a bivouac was for. Really! Who says romance is dead? I have to admit there is something exhilarating about committing adultery while the world was going about its business outside. Shoppers were going home; cars and vans and lorries revved and braked and tooted; kids shouted. I could see the tops of peoples heads as a double-decker bus trundled past. I was in a different world, but there were things I needed to know.

Wheres your wife? I asked.

Pat? She goes to see her sister on Saturdays.

Actually, that was all I needed to know.

Shell be home in an hour or so. Had you better be getting back for Dan?

Derek was right. Time to be going.

See anything that takes your fancy? he asked. There was that cheekiness again, maybe with a hint of business-is-business, which I didnt mind.

Perhaps you need to consider things, take a second look round, say next Saturday?

Perhaps Id better.

When is Dans birthday by the way?

May 12th.

Said Derek: But its only February.

****

For a while our lives fell into a rhythm. Id say bye to Dan, Derek would say bye to Pat; Dan would begin his sedentary quest for Great White Barbel or Killer Gudgeon or something, Id get some housework done and Derek would keep the towns anglers supplied with wriggly maggots with one hand while simultaneously running his empire on his mobile with his other. By three hed close for the day and by three fifteen wed be well and truly bivouacked. Pat would be home by six and Derek would be there to welcome her, while I would have the kettle on for my returning hero and hed tell me all about his match. Yawn. And yawn I had every excuse to do.

Id met Pat briefly in the shop. Derek introduced me. It was the right thing to do, tactically and it had gone smoothly enough: I dont think I coloured up or looked guilty or behaved oddly. We talked as Derek took a call on his mobile. She was the nervous type who gabbled her words, but she was attractive and I was left understanding why Derek looked elsewhere and at the same time wondering why hed the need. Variety, I suppose; the spice of bedtime and so on. I didnt fool myself I was special. It was an important meeting of wives because it showed I could get away with the deception at both ends. Derek had met Dan on some riverbank and made a point of being friendly and said he thought Dan had seemed sort of alarmed at first, but there was nothing in his behaviour that suggested to me he had any inclination Derek and I were, well, lovers. Its a funny word that. I was happier seeing Derek as my fancy man and me being his bit of stuff. Lovers suggests something deeper than the mutual attraction that manifested itself in our Saturday sessions, which were now part my weekly routine, like the trip to Lidl. Lovers is very much a Waitrose word, dont you think?

It couldnt go on like that, of course and it was Derek who made it better still.

A good businessman was Derek hed sold me a bivouac for 200 full price for a start but he had steadily increased Dans sponsorship so that he was on the team whatever that meant. It seemed to please Dan and it comforted my conscience that he was also benefiting from my exertions.

Its the Irish Championships soon. Im entering the team, which means Dan will be away for five days, said Derek spreading five fingers before my face. Do you think you can do without him?

The showroom had lost its novelty for me. Id tried on the hats and the camouflage gear and even waders and they had all in turn done their bit to enhance our Saturdays, but the thought of five consecutive days without the comfort of some decent bed springs under my bum was not at all appealing.

I thought we could go away. To a hotel. said Derek, answering the question before I could ask it.

He was reeling me in again.

What about Dan?

Id rather he went fishing, said Derek.

Ha-ha. I mean what do I tell him?

Tell him youre going away with Pat and her sister for a few days, said Derek.

Why, is she going away?

Certainly is.

Yippee, I said.

Happy? he said.

Not half, I said.

Fancy popping the waders on again? he said.

****

Dan was delighted when Derek rang and told him about the Irish trip. Five days of good fishing and even better Guinness, what more could any man want? Well, that would depend on the man, of course.

He was surprised when I said I told him if he was going away I would be, too. I felt I had to take that line. The whats-sauce-for-the-goose-is-sauce-for-the-gander tactic always puts a man on the defensive. You dont have to be stroppy, just resolved and it ensures a quick submission. Some marriages need that. Ours was strong and didnt, but I wasnt taking any chances. Either way, he was happy for me to go and told me to have a good time. He even gave me a kiss. Steady on!

Actually it was sweet and I felt a pang of remorse, but not for nothing is pang a short sharp word and the feeling was there and gone. My weekly showroom trysts were becoming stale and a hotel break could come not a moment too soon for me and I tingled with excitement, as if I was being sprinkled with glitter.

Where are you going by the way?

Ah.

Good question.

An hour earlier I was looking irresistible in thigh waders. They bore a logo all anglers are familiar with, Shakespeare.

Stratford-upon-Avon, I said.

Right, said Dan as if mulling it over. He well knew my cultural boundaries excluded anything remotely classical. A Tudor romp always gets me while Shakespeare hasnt written a decent sex scene in four hundred years. Against that its lovely part of the country and I do like history and atmosphere, as long as I dont have to think too hard about it. I remember going with Dan to York once and while he went to the races I wandered off shopping and got lost in its quaint twisted streets. You should see it, I told him when I eventually found my way back to the hotel, its a proper shambles. He laughed at me. Its a warm feeling being laughed at by someone you love. But that was then. This was now.

Hmm, nice place, he said after a few moments mulling. Youll enjoy it.

Phew. A potentially tricky conversation avoided. Alls well that ends well, I thought. Sorry William

The day came when Dan jumped eagerly into the car and he was off to catch a Ryanair cheapie to Dublin. He had held me briefly and puckered up and sniffled at the same time. I wasnt risking catching anything that would ruin the next few days. He looked peaky. Was that a cold sore coming on his top lip? Urrggghh. I offered him my cheek and he leaned forward, applied some apathetic suction, jumped into the car and was away. I waved. He didnt wave back, but I didnt mind. Already, I was glittering all over, sparkling and sparking with anticipation.

Where are we going? I asked Derek as we hit the motorway.

Hang on, he said, pressing the buttons on his phone as quickly as a Chinese salesman uses an abacus. He stared at the screen and, seeming satisfied, placed the ohoen on its dashboard holder. It was still switched on, of course, and stared back at him. Im not used to get these thoughts but theres something pet like about a mobile phone, as if was anticipating a call as much as its owner. I wanted to switch it off.

The Cotswolds via Stratford. I thought you should at least pay a visit since you told Dan thats where you were going, said Dan and I looked across at jaw-jutting handsome profile.

Good thinking Romeo, I said.

We can wander around, take in the sights. Have a nice time.

And the entertainment tonight?

As you like it, said Derek and he pressed his right floor and accelerated to a throaty roar.

****

If you can imagine a staircase and the top step bore the word sublime and the next one pleasurable and the one after enjoyable you can see how we spent the next three days and where we were heading. It was getting steeper. I wanted to go home before we reached the fourth step, agreeable. I did not want my love affair to be agreeable. In fact I did not know whether I wanted a love affair at all any longer. My glitter was gone, my sparkle spent. A once-a-week bonk is one thing, but you have to serious about a bloke to spend time with him. I wasnt serious about Derek. Or his mobile.

I was sat up in bed waiting for him to come out of the bathroom and I just knew when he did he would be his mobile. He was the sort who kept in touch with his world through his Samsung. Fair enough he had a business still to run but it isnt just irritating when your partner is checking his bank account when you have just rung room service, its a proper mood changer. We couldnt do anything without he checked his mobile before and after. I drew the line at during. Hed sometimes suck in his cheeks and raise his eyebrows as he looked at the screen and I am sure the figures were causing him pain.

As he suggested wed done the sights Shakespeares birthplace, Anne Wotsits cottage and I got him to take a photo of me outside both so I could send them to Dan. I dont know who Thomas Nash was but I posed in front of his house as well because I felt my lie needed plumping up a little, like a sagging cushion and anyway our heritage is so wonderful, isnt it? Whoever Thomas Nash was no other countrys got him, have they? I had not sent him any updates for a couple of days, though Dan had sent me a smiley picture of himself with fish infested water in the background. How did he look now? Dan-ish, I suppose; very agreeable. Were it not for that cold sore that had come out into a big splodge at the corner of his mouth I might have even fancied him.

Derek emerged from the en-suite and, yes, his mobile was in his hand. He looked perplexed, furrowed brow and all that. Particularly nasty numbers, I assumed.

Whats up? I asked. I didnt really care.

Somethings wrong, he said, unhelpfully.

Meaning? I was getting interested.

Some moneys gone out of my account. In Ireland, he explained. Im here and Pats in Llandudno - shes sent me a photo of herself on the pier - so whos spending my money in Ireland?

Lets look at the photo? I said, feeling the first nibbles of suspicion.

Derek stroked the screen until he reached a photo of a smiling Pat. That was Llandudno in the background sure enough, Snowdonia in the distance, the bustle of the pier immediately behind her, but it was something up front which grabbed my attention. Very up front.

Uh-oh, I said.

Pardon? he said.

Uh-oh, I said.

Meaning?

Bugger, I explained.

Well, why didnt you say? retorted Derek.

I zoomed in on Pats face. How well she looked, how happy and glowing, you might say. Glittery almost.

There, I said, and held his phone out to show him.

What?

The cold sore, I said and had already picked up my own phone.

What about it?

At the right side of her mouth.

So?

I held out the photo of Dan, zoomed in. Derek looked. I brought the two phones together, as if the photographs were kissing.

He said: You mean

I do.

What?

Your wife and my husband know each other rather well.

Oh.

It seems they are swapping and sharing things.

Can you get cold sores like that?

Probably.

I mean, where they touched, if they kissed?

Why not?

Derek had no answer.

Look, I began to explore my theory as I went along. Llandudno is on the way to Holyhead and the ferry to Dublin. How long would a detour for a photo take? Pats away, Dans away; Dan is always out Saturday afternoons, so is Pat. He was alarmed when you approached him, and half the time Dans tackle looks as if it hasnt been used. I should have given it a closer inspection.

Well, whats he been doing with my maggots? said Derek, stupidly.

Oh well, thats what matters most, I said, in that needling way we women have when men are being dim. Derek was struggling with the duplicity of a man to whom he had donated maggots in all good faith.

How the hell do I know whats he done with your sodding maggots. Given them the birds, most likely. Who cares?

There I was Dans wife naked as nature and Derek had intended trying to gauge how calamitous my calamity was, while Dereks mind was juddering forward like a slow computer until eventually the full reality revealed itself.

Bugger, he said.

I couldnt agree more, I said.

You know what this means?

Well, not yet, I hadnt gone deep enough into my own thoughts for meanings. I was still grappling with my husband of ten years betraying me, with the woman I had told him I was going away with. The woman I had told him in a text message only five minutes ago sends her regards.

Her regards. She was providing him with a bit more than her regards. The two-faced, lying little

No wonder she was all nervy when we met; no wonder Dan had been reluctant to go and get his own ruddy maggots from Derek.

Meanings didnt matter. Explanations were another thing. Oh, God.

It means, Derek insisted, I am sponsoring your husband to have an affair with my wife and I am subsidising her fling with your husband while I am paying for you to keep me happy and I am paying for me to give you the time of your life.

All In, I noted, sourly.

Thats exactly it, he agreed. I am even paying for a relief manager to keep going the business thats paying for us to all cheat on each other with each other.

He let that sink in.

Theyre drinking champagne you know, Pat and Dan. Thats whats been charged to my account. She must have given them the wrong card by mistake. Room service champagne, fifty-five ruddy quid a bottle. Two bottles. Theyre having a really good time.

And you arent?

Yeah, but hes with my wife.

For heavens sake!

It was all over, of course, between us, I mean, and between Pat and Dan. Not all over in other ways. We had all got that to face and live with. We had futures to decide, important stuff like that, stuff that leads to the drumbeats in EastEnders.

It was clear there were no innocent parties, but some were more guilty than others. Dan Juan had begun his affair first, for instance. Git. Pat was probably a veteran of Saturday afternoon romps. I bet Dan wasnt her first and if shed stuck to what she knew wed all be in the clear still. Stupid cow. Derek had financed the whole shebang, which was making him mightily aggrieved. If he was noble, then hed never mentioned it and that would suit everyone else. If he went on about it, which he probably would, hed risk being reminded about his priorities. Loser.

There was no moral high ground, only ground less low than the rest and I was determined to occupy a patch of it.

We should leave now and get home before them, I said. I reckoned it was far better being the one of the sofa with a glass of wine and wielding a face like an axe than the one coming through the front door to face the axe and without the wine.

So thats what we did and I was home, unpacked, and half-way through my second glass when I heard Dan stashing his gear in the garage and his key in the door. He shuffled into the lounge.

What really annoyed me, really really annoyed me was that I was as guilty as he was. Well, not quite, but there wasnt much room for manoeuvre.

Hello, Daniel. I reserve his full name for rows and serious conversations.

Hello, Heather.

There was a lot of static in the air and I was reminded again of EastEnders. I was so tense if hed have said, We need to talk, Id would have laughed hysterically.

But he didnt. He poured himself a glass of wine and sat down.

Pat gone home? I asked. It was best we acknowledge the situation.

To Derek, said Dan.

Touch.

Suddenly all the things I wanted to ask, all the things I needed to know, didnt matter. He would only ask the same questions of me and I didnt want to talk about Derek and me no more than he wanted to talk about Pat and him. I still loved Dan you see and I was surprised because I was also sure he loved me, too.

One thing.

Yes.

Howd you know? asked Dan.

Matching bloody cold sores.

He looked crestfallen, like the villain in an episode of Columbo when informed of the subtle clue that led to his downfall.

Can we say were sorry and start again? Kiss and make up.

You can say youre sorry, but Im not kissing you until your cold sores gone.

He looked miffed, but said nothing. I didnt say I was never kissing him again. Hed have spotted that.

Im sorry, I said. Whered that come from? I shouldnt have apologised first, but I had.

Im sorry, he said, as if I cleared the way for him.

So you bloody well should be, I said.

Thats better girl.

And the guilt. Its been bothering me all week, he said.

All week, ay? As long as that? Must have been hard swallowing that champagne.

I just wanted she made me feel what I mean is I it wasnt, it wasnt

I know Dan. Whatever it is you are blathering on about I probably feel the same.

I have made a right mess.

So much for lucky Heather, I said in a sorry-for-myself voice that got under his skin.

I hurt, too, said Dan, in his youre-not-the-only-one voice.

We are all losers, I said.

Dan seemed to consider this observation for a long time.

Well, not exactly, he said. And he reached into his pocket and pulled out an envelope and handed it to me.

I reached inside and extracted a single piece of paper, about eight inches long, four high and of a satisfying feel of a certain quality and that spoke to my fingertips: cheque.

I won, said Dan his smiles was so wide he winced as the pain pinched his cold sore.

I bloody won the championship.

Five thousand pounds.

I smiled, too. A whoopee smile. And, I thought, Pat had even bought the champagne. Oh, that was lovely. But that brought back images of the two of them together, celebrating, naked, in bed, laughing, touching It should have been me.

It should have been me!

Its the Scottish Championships next week, said Paul. Fancy a little break. We both could do with one.

Howd he figure that?

Id love it, I said and snuggled up to the cheque. I also put my head on Dans shoulder.

Ill need to practice, he said.

Of course.

Theres just one thing, he said.

Whats that.

You couldnt get me some maggots, could you? Well I cant go and see Derek can I?

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