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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.1
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The Last Summer of the Water Strider


  The Last

  Summer of the

  Water Strider

  By Tim Lott

  Memoir

  The Scent of Dried Roses

  Young Adult Fiction

  Fearless

  How to Be Invisible

  Fiction

  White City Blue

  Rumours of a Hurricane

  The Love Secrets of Don Juan

  The Seymour Tapes

  Under the Same Stars

  The Last Summer of the Water Strider

  First published in Great Britain by Scribner, an imprint of Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2015

  A CBS COMPANY

  Copyright © Tim Lott 2015

  This book is copyright under the Berne Convention.

  No reproduction without permission.

  ® and © 1997 Simon & Schuster Inc. All rights reserved.

  SCRIBNER and design are registered trademarks of

  The Gale Group, Inc. used under licence by

  Simon & Schuster, Inc.

  The right of Tim Lott to be identified as author of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

  Simon & Schuster UK Ltd

  1st Floor

  222 Gray’s Inn Road

  London WC1X 8HB

  www.simonandschuster.co.uk

  Simon & Schuster Australia, Sydney

  Simon & Schuster India, New Delhi

  A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library

  Hardback ISBN: 978-1-84737-304-5

  Ebook ISBN: 978-1-84983-584-8

  This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  Typeset by M Rules

  Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

  Simon & Schuster UK Ltd are committed to sourcing paper that is made from wood grown in sustainable forests and supports the Forest Stewardship Council, the leading international forest certification organisation. Our books displaying the FSC logo are printed on FSC certified paper.

  In memory of Alan Watts, 1915–73

  Contents

  One

  Two

  Three

  Four

  Five

  Six

  Seven

  Eight

  Nine

  Ten

  Eleven

  Twelve

  Thirteen

  Fourteen

  Fifteen

  Sixteen

  Seventeen

  Eighteen

  Nineteen

  Twenty

  Twenty-one

  Twenty-two

  Twenty-three

  Twenty-four

  Twenty-five

  Twenty-six

  Acknowledgements

  One

  It was one of the distant, lost afternoons of the 1970s when I first met Crazy Uncle Henry. The week, the month, the year – they don’t matter. Henry taught me that. The divisions of the calendar and of the clock are nothing more than ripples sketched on water.

  I was seventeen years old. I had heard rumours of Uncle Henry, but I had never actually met him. Visits weren’t encouraged by my father, and, so far as I knew, were never soli cited by Henry either.

  All I knew about Henry was what I could find out from my father when he dropped his guard – a rare event. It emerged then from time to time as a garbled bulletin. Henry was on the run from the police in Mexico. Henry had made a ‘packet’ smuggling ‘pot’, but had blown it all on a sports car that he crashed into a tree in Cap Ferrat. Henry had hooked up with the Maharishi Ji in Rishikesh and had converted to Vedantism. Neither my father nor I had much idea what a Vedantist was, but my father was convinced that it was in some manner disreputable, or inauthentic – ‘a con’. Most recently, the story was that Henry was living on a riverboat in the West Country with a waif – a ballet dancer by some accounts, a singer by others – who suffered from bouts of schizophrenia, or paranoia, or common-or-garden madness.

  These dispatches were delivered to me by my father with a speck of reluctant amusement that was edged by a corona of disapproval. Ray worked hard and followed the rules. He smelled faintly of leather and other people’s socks, and bore a slight stoop from undertaking too many fittings in the shoe shop he managed. He died at the age of sixty-three of a heart attack, selling a pair of Doc Marten boots disapprovingly to an impertinent Goth who had goaded him about his display of buckled patent-leather loafers. He did the right thing all his life and as a result he never really had a life. So the idea that his brother could profit from reckless and irresponsible behaviour offended his sense of natural justice.

  Henry, two years older than my father – he had just turned fifty when I first met him – was, according to Ray, a ‘weirdo’. He’d trod the Katmandu trail, he’d ridden the Marrakesh Express, he’d worked as a roadie for the Stones, he’d met Timothy Leary in San Francisco, he’d been on the Haight-Ashbury before it degenerated into a freak show. Lately, he was claiming to have cleaned himself up and to be working on a Book That Would Change the World.

  From the photographs I’d seen, he was physically impressive, long and lean with chiselled cheekbones and heavy-lidded, mesmeric grey eyes. It would have been impossible to guess, at a glance, that he was my father’s brother – Ray was four inches shorter, with a face that was somehow deeply generic; you could imagine that there were thousands of Rays, but only one Henry. The roundness and redness of middle age, the lank brown hair that was losing its struggle for purchase, the eyes that held no distinguishable colour at all, the softening of the angles of a face that had never been very angular in the first place.

  Henry, said Ray, never quite without bitterness, always had money. This good fortune, coupled with Henry’s recklessness, was another source of grievance for my father. Ray was not quite sure where Henry obtained his alleged money – my father suspected it was from the rich, beautiful women Ray believed he consistently picked up and discarded like motes picked idly out of the air – but he had managed to get through most of his adult life without a straight job.

  It was my father who christened him Crazy Henry. So far as I know, no one else ever called him that.

  Although I feigned indifference – my personality being scarcely formed, indifference was all I had in the way of psychological stock – I was intrigued when Ray told me that Crazy Uncle Henry was coming to visit. I was looking forward to something – anything – that might interrupt the inertia of the passage of time in Buthelezi House, the very ordinary low-rise council block in which we lived.

  The name of the block belied its absolutely quotidian nature. A far-left council, infiltrated by Trotskyists, named the block after the Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, founder of the Inkatha Freedom Party, who was in those days at least as well known a symbol of the South African struggle as his rival in the ANC, Nelson Mandela. Whether Chief Buthelezi was pleased with the honour bestowed on him, I could not say, but certainly all the residents I ever met had their doubts, envying those neighbours in the more conventional Chesterton House or The Pines. ‘I mean, who wants to say they live in Buthelezi House? It’s not exactly Hyde Park Gate, is it?’ was Ray’s view of the matter.

  I didn’t really think of living in Buthelezi House as living at all. It was a process, a situation, that fell well short of life. Worse, there was no sense of latency – merely the certainty of further stasis. It felt that it would be for ever. I sometimes wished it was violent, or crumbling, like some nearby council blocks
there was at least a certain grim drama to poverty and decay. But it was well kept and respectable, with carefully tended communal gardens and lifts that worked.

  It wasn’t only our location that oppressed me. The entire decade seemed to have got stuck somewhere, in the craw of something, choked off, the flow of air restricted. It was as if we were waiting for a new time to bloom while the old one was on life support, waiting for the plug to be finally pulled. The cheap brightness of the 1960s was exhausted, but there was no sign that its long vapour trail was ready to evanesce, leaving the sky clear for new beginnings. The stultification expressed itself in triviality: novelty records crowded the charts; adults dressed as children in violently coloured dungarees and stacked cartoon shoes. Terry and June had replaced JFK and Jackie O as icons of the age.

  My father warned me what to expect of Henry, despite the rumours of reinvention and literary aspiration. Henry was liable to be dirty, dishevelled and barely articulate. He would be high on some psychotropic substance or other. He would inevitably ask for money, or a favour, since there was no other reason my father could imagine him coming to visit. Ray hadn’t seen Henry for fifteen years – although he had received the occasional letter, and even more occasional phone call – but he had little doubt that his brother would be unchanged, that was to say, feckless, self-involved and entirely out of touch with what Ray liked to think of as reality.

  He would not necessarily be unhinged – my father had spoken to him on the telephone in the shop several weeks before, at which time the visit was arranged (we did not yet have a telephone at home), and had reported him to be fundamentally coherent. But it was suggested that I would be unable to make much sense of anything he had to say. Ray’s theory was that the drugs would have reduced his brain to residual tissue a long time ago.

  When Uncle Henry actually arrived, one monochrome afternoon, on a late-winter day stillborn by a sterile, uncommitted sun, he was nothing like my father had described. As he stepped into our bland, overly kempt hallway, he was wearing a verdigris-coloured Harris tweed suit and polished chestnut leather brogues of the kind that I had seen the landed gentry wear in nostalgic films. It was clear that my father had expected tatty jeans, a scruffy beard and possibly a kaftan, and was taken aback by Henry’s businesslike appearance – even though the business might have been that of a sturdy yeoman buying livestock at a village fair fifty years before.

  He was clean-shaven and clear-eyed. He moved fluidly, as if the nine-tenths of his body that were water dominated the grosser, material parts. When he said hello to me he looked me directly in the eye for a long moment. I broke the gaze, then with a beckoning gesture of both hands, and a slight splaying of his arms, Henry tried to summon my father forward for a hug. Ray shrank before him, confused. Henry capitulated and offered his hand instead, which my father half-heartedly took, then swiftly let go, as if Henry might be carrying a dangerous communicable disease. I remember he called my father Raymond, rather than the accustomed Ray.

  His hair was reasonably long, but well groomed and combed back from the brow, as if the wind had swept it and continued, somehow, to secure it there. There was a streak of grey like a badger’s stripe running from crown to nape. If I tried hard enough, I could register faint traces of my father in his face – the slightly jutting ears, the nearly linked eyebrows – but on the whole he seemed to be from a different genetic pool altogether.

  He had in his mouth, unlit, a burnished cherrywood pipe, somehow managing the performance without appearing pretentious. When he spoke, the vowels were clipped, the consonants precise, like a Third Programme announcer. He had been public school-educated until my grandparents’ money ran out – another source of resentment from my father, who had attended a local Church school before leaving at the age of fifteen. Henry, on the other hand, had read Divinity at Cambridge, and been awarded a doctorate.

  Henry gave a sense of being impressively cultured, punctuating his conversation with literary quotations and even repeating chunks of poetry from memory. During his visit he recited excerpts from Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ and a few lines from Auden’s ‘1939’. This made my parents suspicious, as if culture itself were another dangerous narcotic that would get you into trouble sooner or later.

  Evie – Eve was her given name, but I never heard anyone call her anything but Evie – my mother, was a kind, lightly built, scared-looking woman with an ingrained defensive smile that remained, even at rest and without company, as an after-image on her lips. This smile was stitched on to her face as she ushered Ray and Henry into the sitting room. I followed at a safe distance – far away enough, I hoped, not to get dragged into any small-talk, which I found excruciating. Henry was offered a drink, a choice between a glass of Amontillado sherry or a dusty bottle of London Pale Ale. The sitting room was furnished with Ercol chairs and contained a spindly, 1950s-style circular coffee table decorated with a pattern that suggested space satellites and circulating planets.

  Henry politely declined both the proffered drinks, even when pressed urgently by his nervous brother, and requested instead a glass of tap water, which Evie set off to fetch. Then he lowered himself into a worn but comfortable green plush wing-back armchair – normally reserved for my father – with an air of entitlement, like a visiting bank manager.

  I noticed that although he sat perfectly still – uncannily so, like a mime artist – his eyes rarely stopped moving, albeit lazily, around the room, taking everything in, holding the images momentarily like a mirror then letting them go. Although his urbanity conjured in me a sense of shame in our surroundings – in the shape, quality and surfaces of our life – I could detect no judgement in those eyes, only a quiet, analytical curiosity.

  I could see why he made my parents uncomfortable. Without his ever saying a word, the apparition of Henry seemed to question everything my father stood for; and under Henry’s gaze I felt that my parents’ life, as well as my own, reduced itself. Henry – I imagined – was viewing each of us through the wrong end of a telescope. It was obvious to me that Ray wanted him out of the flat as quickly as possible. In the state of perpetual, sullen resentment towards my parents that I sustained myself in, it made me warm to Henry somewhat, despite my determination to have nothing to do with the adult world and what I saw as its ubiquitous, suffocating hypocrisies.

  I wasn’t sure that I entirely liked him, however; neither was I convinced that he liked me. He certainly made no effort to reach out to me, or accommodate my discomfort, which I signalled by refusing to sit down and by doodling pointlessly with a blue ballpoint pen on the back of my hand. He seemed to find my behaviour – and everything else for that matter – faintly amusing.

  There was certainly a gentle humour about Henry, but with an undertow of gravitas, as if he commanded an Olympian view of life. This aura of unforced amusement was particularly disconcerting. He made you feel foolish, without ever really trying to be anything but affable and dry. I’d never met anybody who occupied their skin so completely and comfortably.

  Surprisingly, during that brief meeting, we managed to form the semblance of a bond. It was when my mother and father both left the room briefly – one to use the toilet (I noticed that Henry looked slightly pained at the word ‘toilet’), the other to fetch a resupply of Royal Scot biscuits. This left Henry and me briefly alone.

  He looked me up and down in the manner of a biologist studying a specimen. I was wearing a bottle-green grandad vest – three buttons at the top, no collar – and a pair of burgundy loon pants, low on the hips, vast at the ankles and tight around the buttocks. I may have been wearing an absurd pair of platform boots with a wooden heel. I had vaguely imagined, before he arrived, that Henry might see me as some kind of kindred spirit. But Henry looked very little like the scion of the counterculture that Ray had led me to expect.

  He asked me, conventionally enough, how school was going. I told him I thought it was stupid. Then he asked me how I was getting on with Raymond and Evie. I told him I thought t
hey were stupid. He calmly lit his pipe, taking what seemed a very long time, and eventually puffed out a cumulus of blue, fragrant smoke. Then he gave me a curious look, and asked me what I thought of him. Taken aback, I replied that I hadn’t had time to form a proper impression. This was not strictly true, as I was unable, despite my best efforts, to find him anything other than intriguing.

  A silence fell, within which Henry seemed entirely comfortable. I began to hope for the return of one or other of my parents. Just to make a dent in the noiseless space, I asked him what he thought of me. He inclined his head to one side, and answered, ‘Pretty stupid.’ But he said it in such a kind, wry way, it made me laugh. I tried to disguise it as a cough, but Henry wasn’t fooled. In response, he laughed too. In contrast to my brief, high, anxious bark, his laugh came in thick, heavy waves, great booming reverberations, rich and purple-brown like old port. When Mum and Dad walked back into the room a few moments later, we were still laughing, him taking the baritone, me the falsetto. A fresh shadow of resentment worked its way across my father’s face. The frown lines around his eyes contorted into question marks. Ray and I rarely laughed at the same time, or about the same things.

  Henry stayed for an hour or so in all. The longer he was there, the more uncomfortable my mother and father became, and the more the silences made pit-holes in the conversation, until the talk almost entirely ran out of juice. The new supply of Royal Scot biscuits remained untouched, though Evie had pressed them on Henry twice. When at last he got up to leave, claiming, not inaccurately, that he had overstayed his welcome, my father didn’t try to conceal his relief. His shoulders relaxed and for the first time he conjured what seemed to me a genuine smile.

  It was never clear why Henry had come that day. When my father asked him, as Henry was making ready to leave, he said that it ‘seemed like it was time’. It was my first intimation that Henry didn’t think like my parents, or most of the people I knew. I later found out that he felt no particular need to invent reasons for the things he did. He just did them, without too much reflection and without regret. My father, I knew, found this irritating, since he, in contrast, overthought nearly everything. He was paralysed by fear of consequence. I simply found Henry’s attitude bewildering. How could you ‘just do’ anything? Didn’t everything have a reason?

 
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