The last summer of the w.., p.10
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.10

           Tim Lott
 
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  ‘What’s it like having a vicar for a father?’

  She turned to me. She ran her left hand lightly down one side of her body. The gesture could have passed for innocent if it wasn’t for her eyes. They narrowed. Her gaze became direct. The light in them had changed from a flinty, wry curiosity to something more brazen. Her voice dropped a tone.

  ‘Do I look like a vicar’s daughter?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘What do I look like?’ she said.

  ‘I don’t know. Normal?’

  ‘You’d be surprised,’ she said, smiling archly. ‘I’m really not as normal as you think.’

  ‘You look like the Devil’s own work to me,’ said Henry, half under his breath, as he took a final puff on his cigarette before stubbing it out on the pavement. ‘Come on, Adam. We need to go.’

  ‘Do you have to?’ said Ash. I wasn’t sure if she was being genuine, or mocking.

  ‘No, we don’t have to,’ said Henry. ‘We just want to.’

  ‘You just want to,’ I said.

  ‘If you like. Yes.’

  He started making his way back towards the car. Ash watched him go, then turned to me.

  ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘He’s my transport.’

  ‘Try not to smash the car up again. You shouldn’t make a habit of it.’

  I followed Henry at a clip, without turning back to Ash. I fancied I could feel her eyes on my back. When I caught up with him, I was breathing heavily.

  ‘Did you have to be so rude?’

  ‘I’m not necessarily a fan of excessive politeness. Certainly one should respect others. But there is a point where the need for authenticity trumps the need for civility.’

  He stopped for a moment, and turned to me.

  ‘She somehow always manages to get under my skin, that girl. There’s something about her that unnerves me. A vague whiff of fanaticism. And I’m not that easily unnerved.’

  He continued striding towards the car, now only a few yards off.

  ‘What did you mean by that? Calling her the Devil’s work?’

  I caught up with him as he reached the car. Henry climbed into the driver’s seat. It seemed he had bestowed enough freedom and responsibility on me for the day.

  ‘What must I have been thinking? She’s a saint. Isn’t that apparent? Like her father. Very much the one to uphold standards.’

  ‘Isn’t that a good thing?’

  ‘There’s nothing more dangerous than a saint,’ said Henry. ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions.’

  ‘Meaning?’

  ‘Meaning the reason for most of the unhappiness in the world is guilt. This is Wesley Toshack’s stock-in-trade. His daughter is a strong advocate for the family business.’

  ‘But surely—’

  ‘Most of the evil in the world has been done by people who thought they were doing good. Robespierre, Cromwell, Torquemada, Lenin, you name it. Even the war that you are so conscientiously studying, or not, was fought out of principles of honour. Pol Pot is only the latest example. They want the world to be cleansed of all its impurities, you see. Give me a man who just wants territory and women and riches over a man who wants to make the world a better place every time.’

  ‘Wesley Toshack is like Robespierre?’

  ‘It’s a matter of degree. He’d be like Robespierre if he had the chance. He’d probably have a finger in the tumbril business as well and consider it a good honest profit.’

  Henry cut the conversation short by shuffling through his 8-track cartridge collection, selecting one and clicking the player on. It was some weird folk-rock thing by a duo called Judy Henske and Jerry Yester. They were singing a song about Aldebaran.

  ‘What’s Aldebaran?’

  ‘A star in the constellation of Taurus.’

  ‘Taurus?’

  ‘The bull of heaven. Closely associated with Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of sexual love, fertility and warfare.’

  ‘Oh.’

  ‘I thought it would be appropriate.’

  ‘Whatever that means.’

  ‘Think about it.’

  As we headed back towards the boat, the melancholic psychedelia pumping through the speakers, Henry asked me what I made of the lyrics. I was unable to answer, for I hadn’t heard any of them. Just one word pulsed through my head, obliterating everything else.

  Ash. Ash. Ash.

  Ten

  On the Saturday, I woke early. I had agreed to help Henry prepare for the Fayre in Bristol. He was already down in the galley, swilling hot water in the teapot to warm it before adding the leaves and sporting a natty suit – steel blue, single vent, narrow lapels, straight leg and a chalk pinstripe. His hair was carefully brushed and secured in a knot at the back.

  We took breakfast, then loaded up the boot of the car with posters, books, flyers and badges. The badges read, WHO ARE YOU? I pinned one to my jumper.

  ‘What about Strawberry? Is she coming?’

  ‘She’s already in Bristol. She slept over with Troy.’

  ‘Is he her boyfriend?’

  ‘I don’t think Strawberry does the boyfriend thing any more. She finds the whole business of bodies a bit messy. I think she just wants to be pure air. Or water. To melt, thaw, and resolve herself into a dew.’

  ‘But I thought . . .’

  ‘You thought she and I were lovers? No, it’s not that at all. I hope the fact that we haven’t slept together isn’t going to reignite your suspicion that I’m going to creep up on you in the middle of the night and use you as my catamite.’

  ‘What’s a catamite?’

  ‘A catamite is the passive partner in anal intercourse.’

  When we arrived in Bristol, we parked in the grounds of what I assumed was a deconsecrated church, since it had a spire but no stained glass in the windows. It was still only 8.30 a.m. Henry maneouvred the Karmann Ghia into a spot between a VW Kombi and a Land Rover.

  I caught the scent of hashish, and followed it to its source. I saw a man with a halo of frizzy black hair, a red headband keeping it in place, a white cheesecloth shirt and blue hip-hugging trousers ballooning out into flares that had been expanded by triangles of patterned cloth. He held the joint in his mouth while he took a large bundle of posters out of the back of a battered Citroën Dyane. He had a circle of red cotton tied around his wrist. He began to walk towards us.

  ‘Hi, Hank. Where y’at?’ he drawled, in a voice that sounded transatlantic, but with a slight English twang. Henry held out a hand to greet him.

  ‘Troy.’

  Troy ignored the outstretched hand, put down the posters on the bonnet of the Karmann Ghia and embraced Henry. Henry – the grabber, as my father would have it – appeared not so keen on being grabbed. His face registered distaste, possibly because smoke from the joint was seeping into his face.

  ‘You’re going to get yourself arrested.’

  ‘Toke?’ Troy removed the sodden stub from his mouth and held it out to Henry.

  ‘No thanks.’

  He waved it in my direction. I shook my head.

  ‘Who’s the teenybopper?’

  ‘My nephew.’

  ‘Is that so? He looks worried.’

  ‘I’m not surprised, with you waving that thing around.’

  ‘If the filth do turn up he’ll make a good patsy, by the look of him. Innocent face. He’ll get off light. Three months, tops, minimum security.’ He gave me a big grin, and took another toke.

  ‘Is Strawberry here?’ said Henry.

  ‘Somewhere.’

  ‘She stayed with you last night?’

  Troy dropped the stub of the joint and ground it with his foot.

  ‘She stayed with me. But she didn’t stay with me. So don’t start coming over all caveman.’

  ‘Strawberry does what Strawberry does.’

  ‘Ain’t that the truth?’

  Troy picked up one of his posters and inspected it. It was a blown-up image of Farrah Fawcett from Charlie’s Angels.

&nbs
p; ‘Bit mainstream, wouldn’t you say?’ asked Henry.

  ‘Got to move with the times. This stuff sells.’

  ‘That’s the main thing. Right?’

  ‘That’s not the main thing. That is the thing.’

  ‘And are the crystals generating the required spectrum of healing vibrations for your credulous patrons?’

  Troy was examining another poster. It depicted a variety of coloured stones, with prices underneath. They struck me as startlingly expensive. At the top, set in a wobbly, bloated typeface, were the words TROY PALOMINO’S WORLD OF CRYSTALS.

  ‘They certainly appear to be. Get lots of repeat orders. People love this shit. The bloodstone is red hot right now.’ He licked his finger, touched it to the photograph of the bloodstone and made a tsssss sound, as if it were singeing his finger. ‘Scorchin’. Can’t get enough. Gives you sex energy. Libido, man.’ He winked at me. ‘How ’bout you, Hank? What you selling?’

  ‘I’m not really selling anything as such.’

  ‘Cool.’ He looked puzzled. ‘What?’

  ‘I’m just trying to . . .’

  Henry paused for a moment, as if he was suddenly unsure of what it was he was trying to do.

  ‘I’m just trying to make people think a little bit differently.’

  ‘Consciousness expansion. That’s a solid growth area.’

  ‘There’s no money in it.’

  Troy laughed, without malice.

  ‘You always were an idealist, Hank. I’ll give you that. Listen, you’ve got dough, right?’

  ‘I do have access to funds. Some friends who would trust me with a small amount of business capital.’

  ‘If you ever want to turn that small amount of capital into a rocket in your pocket, we should talk. With some capitalization, this business could let rip.’

  Troy made his back towards his Citroën. He began to unload trays of coloured stones. They were elegantly presented, in individual polished-glass containers. Although they were only rocks, the way they were displayed made them seem precious.

  ‘Presentation. It’s all that counts any more,’ said Henry. ‘The proliferation of maya continues apace.’

  He began to walk towards the entrance. I followed.

  ‘What’s maya?’ I asked.

  ‘Things as they seem. As opposed to things as they are.’

  A beggar sat by the church doorway – an old-style tramp, by the look of him: elderly, with a massive, filthy beard through which pink wet lips poked like some kind of sea anemone stranded in a hay bale. His trousers were knotted with rope. Next to him was a battered pushchair supporting a chaotic pile of what were presumably his possessions. He reached out a hand for some money, fixing us with his bloodshot eyes.

  Henry bustled past him, ignoring him completely. I was taken aback. For some reason, I had assumed Henry was the sort of man who would give money to beggars. He caught my glance.

  ‘“And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.”’

  I said I didn’t understand.

  Henry looked at me. Then he took a pound note out and dropped it on the floor in front of the beggar.

  ‘Am I a good person now?’

  He walked into the hall. I followed him, stepping over the legs of the tramp, who appeared to be indifferent to Henry’s donation. He still hadn’t picked up the pound note.

  Inside, the space was around a third of the size of a football pitch. The ceiling was pitched, with high windows. The floor was scratched parquet. I estimated there were about thirty stalls set up. Several transistor radios competed with one another to provide a patchwork soundtrack, embroidering the air with messy, mashed-up voices, rhythms and melodies.

  A strong smell of incense hung in a low cloud, mingling with the faint odour of wood varnish. Stallholders were gathering to register at a table to the left of the entrance, and Henry joined them. Everyone seemed to know him and greeted him, hugged him or shook his hand.

  I strolled among the stalls. Psychic numerology. Electromagnetic balancing. Back massagers in the shape of dolphins. Cassettes of whalesong. Stalls selling second-hand records. One table was devoted entirely to a magazine called Shrew. It was attended by a smiling, pleasant-looking woman, with sharp eyes. I guessed she was in her mid-thirties, wearing a shapeless olive-coloured blouson dress. At the far end of the hall, furthest from the door, was a small stage where an amp and a mike stand were being set up.

  Most of the exhibitors were wearing colourful, casual clothes of one kind or another, with an American or Indian influence. With his slicked-back long hair and his smart, well-cut suit, Henry stood out as genuinely unconventional. I joined him at the registration desk, where a drably dressed middle-aged man – fawn trousers and a chunky cream V-neck cardigan over a brown shirt with a fraying collar – sat writing in a large, black leather-bound ledger.

  ‘Name?’ said the man, without looking up.

  ‘Dr Henry Templeton.’

  The man scanned the book until he located Henry’s name. He looked up for the first time. He didn’t smile, and made no eye contact, although he glanced at me briefly and dismissively.

  ‘Become What You Have?’

  ‘Become What You Are. Your handwriting is terrible.’

  ‘Stall A17. One pound fifty, less your deposit. That’s one pound.’

  Henry handed over a five-pound note. The man held the note up to the light, placed it meticulously into a chamber in a cash box and handed Henry his change. Then he began making out a receipt.

  ‘Why has it gone up in price?’ asked Henry.

  ‘Demand and supply. If you don’t want the stall, I’ll give you your deposit back. There’s plenty of others who will take it, even now. There’s people waiting outside on the off-chance.’

  ‘It seems greedy.’

  ‘I’ll tell you what, old butty. You become what you are, and I’ll stay what I am. OK? And what I am is someone who charges one pound fifty for a table.’

  The man handed the receipt indifferently to Henry, along with a mimeographed map showing the whereabouts of his allotted stall. Henry folded the receipt briskly into the shape of a plane and sent it flying towards the ceiling.

  ‘Everything’s going up,’ he said. ‘See how the hot air carries it.’

  He checked the map, and we started making our way towards the far left-hand side of the hall. We passed about twenty stalls on the way to our spot. Troy’s World of Crystals was already set up. He had arranged for the tray to be under-lit, so the translucent and semi-translucent stones seemed to glow.

  We passed the Shrew stall. Henry nodded to the woman with sharp eyes.

  ‘That’s Vanya,’ he said to me. Then, ‘Stick it to the man, Van.’

  ‘The men,’ said Vanya.

  ‘That’s right,’ said Henry. ‘The men. They did it. They made the mess.’

  ‘And the women are right here after them with the dustpan and brush.’

  ‘Oh yes.’

  ‘And the incinerator,’ she added, without smiling.

  Some outfit called the Aetherius Society was next to us. A bald, pink-eyed, rather vacant-looking man in a suit that looked ten years out of date raised a hand at Henry as we passed.

  ‘What’s the Aetherius Society?’ I asked Henry as we began to unpack our stuff.

  ‘They believe Jesus came to Earth from Mars.’

  ‘Seriously, though?’

  ‘I am being serious. Quite a lot of the people here are powerfully deluded. Nevertheless, I like them rather more than the ones who are here simply to make money.’

  He began to stack up the books we had hauled over. I scanned the titles. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein, of whom I had vaguely heard. Several books by Carl Jung, among them Memories, Dreams, Reflections. There were Joseph Campbell, Aldous Huxley, G. K. Chesterton and St Augustine, Richard Brautigan and Allen Ginsberg.

  I continued stacking the books on t
he table while Henry went back to the car, this time returning with a collapsed steel frame and some canvas, out of which he constructed a small, upright booth, just about large enough for two people. There was a door-size flap at the front. He had also brought two small folding chairs, which he placed within the booth. After he had set it up to his satisfaction, he emerged, closing the flap behind him, and pinned an A4 sign on the outside that read PHILOSOPHER FOR HIRE – PAY WHAT YOU THINK I’M WORTH.

  ‘What would you hope to be paid?’

  ‘I would hope that whoever came into my little marquee came out feeling they had enjoyed a different kind of wealth.’

  ‘What are we here for? If not to make money?’

  ‘Ah. The Troy Palamino Paradox. We’re here to try and help people to look at their lives in a different way. We’re providing a service. I only ever ask for voluntary contributions.’

  ‘Doesn’t that strike you as unrealistic?’

  ‘Oh, let’s all be realistic. Have a look around the world and see how that’s working out. This is the way it’s all going, Adam. The way people were thinking a few years ago – they were reimagining the world. Now it’s reverting. The old patterns are reasserting themselves. Perhaps it is human nature after all. I expect this will be my last time here. Troy’s right: I’m a relic.’

  He stood stock still, as if trying to incorporate this perception of himself into some internal map. Then he sighed, appeared to relax, and started helping me arrange books on the table.

  There were poster reproductions of work by artists, most of whom I had never heard of – Georgia O’Keeffe, Willem de Kooning, Frank Stella, Jackson Pollock. There were books of photographs – Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus. These were all expensive, although Henry claimed they sold at the same price he bought them for. Some of the cheaper books were offered on free loan.

  Customers were now making their way down the aisles, mainly in clumps of two or three. After a few minutes a lone woman approached us. She had a daffy look about her – slightly too-wide eyes, slightly too-parted lips – and hair that curled into infantile ringlets at the ends. She examined our stock silently, with a smile glued on her face.

 
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