The last summer of the w.., p.17
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.17

           Tim Lott
 
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  ‘What do you think of him’? I asked as we continued to wander aimlessly down the main street.

  ‘I don’t know,’ said Ash. ‘I don’t really know him. I wonder about him. Like what he’s doing with that beautiful, skinny girl that’s always at the boat.’

  ‘Strawberry.’

  She laughed. ‘Yes. Her. Have you got to know her at all?’

  ‘A little.’

  Her eyebrows lifted. ‘Really?’

  ‘Not like that. She’s just sort of . . . weird. In a nice way.’

  ‘What’s she got to do with Henry?’

  I hesitated. Ash caught the hesitation.

  ‘Don’t worry, I’m not fishing for incriminating evidence. I’m just curious.’

  ‘I’m not quite sure. They know each other from America.’

  ‘OK. Well. That tells me a lot.’

  ‘That’s all I know.’

  Ash looked at me sceptically. But she had clearly decided to let it go.

  ‘What do you make of your Uncle Henry?’

  ‘He’s interesting. Not many people I meet are interesting.’

  We had reached the borders of the little town, where the houses gave way to fields and trees.

  ‘I read somewhere that tree roots go out as far as the trees go up,’ I said, touching the bark of an elm.

  ‘My father has a theory about that,’ said Ash.

  ‘He has a theory about trees?’

  ‘Everything that brings life is below the surface. He says. Shall we go for a walk?’

  ‘Isn’t that what we’re doing?’

  ‘Somewhere nice, though.’

  There was a small footpath that led to the river. Ash guided me down some ancient stone steps, beaten into a dull shine by footfall. The river was torpid. Leaves were held by the surface tension, the water, it seemed, too lazy to move them.

  A comfortable silence had grown between us. I chewed thoughtfully on the liquorice tang of a Black Jack; I had not outgrown my taste for penny sweets. Perhaps when I did I would be finally grown up. The sounds of the town had receded to the occasional, faint rev of a car engine in the distance. The areas on the border of the river grew more thickly wooded. Ash stopped at a gap in the bushes and trees, and turned into it. I followed her.

  There were nettles and thorny bushes tearing at my calves. I winced. A wild-rose tendril grabbed at my T-shirt. Ash reached over to unpick it, bringing herself close.

  A thought without words came into my head, pure, like a sheet of light. I kissed her. She returned my kiss. She tasted of orange Corona and salt from the crisps. She leaned closer so that our bodies were touching. She brought her arms round behind me and pressed her hands against the small of my back. They felt so faint, like they were made of light, or shadow. She moved them under my T-shirt, cool against my bare skin. We kissed for minutes on end. All thought stopped. We became only physical. The sun came in sharply defined points through the trees. I could feel the outline of her breasts against my torso. The blunt stubs of her nipples. I could hear, somewhere in the distance, the lapping of water.

  Then, as if on a predetermined signal, we separated. I looked away, not quite knowing what to do. She took my hand and held it. It felt tiny but somehow frighteningly strong.

  Seventeen

  The next morning, Henry handed me a letter that the postman had delivered. The postmark was Yiewsley.

  I had never known Ray to write a letter to anyone. The letter was folded neatly into a buff business envelope. The paper was thin and coarse. Ray had written in a ballpoint pen, and his handwriting was childish, hard to decipher. There were smudges and blots.

  Dear Adam

  It was nice to hear from you at the shop the other day. I am sorry I was so busy and couldn’t have a nice chinwag.

  It has been raining a bit here for a few days, on and off. Makes quite a change after all the sunshine. People’s feet smell worse in the summer. Sometimes it’s hard to bear. I believe some people don’t change their socks for days on end.

  I have been working hard in the shop. We have a new area manager, he is difficult. But I keep my nose clean and my head down. I can’t see that he would have much to complain of, since I have worked here now for 21 years and have never had a day off sick!

  I hope you are having a nice time down there with your uncle. I sometimes wander if I did the right thing packing you off like that! It being a hard time for you and everything as it is for me too. Anyway, not long to go now before your back. You must work hard and pass your exams. Your mother always thought you could do well if you made an effort.

  Here, I mostly come home from work, make myself some supper. Nothing fancy, the old favourites like cheese on toast or baked beans. Mrs Gibbons sometimes brings me some soup, she has been very kind. Then I watch the old goggle box. Rots you’re brain I expect.

  Are you looking after yourself? I am not very good at this sort of thing. But every day I go in your room and make sure it is tidy. Which of course it is! I even give it a dust sometimes!

  Well, that’s all from me. I will see you in September.

  Dad

  For the rest of that day, I could not shake the image of Ray attending my empty room, a feather duster in one hand, the pointless rearranging of this book or that pillow. In my mind his face shifted, one moment clenched like a fist and focused on the task in hand, the other entirely empty of expression. In this last vision, which scared me, light poured into his eyes but found nothing there to illuminate.

  When I started my revision, instead of heavy-heartedly grinding through my History, I sailed through it. Names, dates, places – they just stuck. Poincaré. The great naval race. Lord Kitchener. The Kaiser. The Siegfried Line.

  My mind felt as absorbent as the parched, baked earth. Even though memories of Ash teased and tugged at me – flashes of her face, the compressions of her lips, the taste of orange and salt – I could concentrate perfectly. Ash had to work today – she occasionally waitressed in the town café, or ‘buttery’ as it was called – but I had arranged to see her again tomorrow.

  By the time noon arrived, it occurred to me that I had not seen or heard Henry. Nevertheless, I was aware of movement on the boat below me. The clatter of cutlery, or the slight shift of furniture. I climbed down the steps.

  Strawberry was in the galley area. She appeared to be preparing some kind of drink, and barely looked round when I walked into the room, even though I had taken care to make sufficient noise to alert her to my presence.

  I coughed, and muttered a hello. Her beauty still frightened me. She looked round. She smiled, but traces of sadness lingered on her face.

  ‘Henry’s not here. He’s gone into Bristol. Do you want to try this? It’s wheatgrass. You pulp it, sieve it and add a little rainwater.’

  I took the glass she held out to me, full of browny-green foaming liquid, and sipped. It was foul.

  ‘Better than I expected,’ I said.

  She took the glass back, carefully wiped the rim with a clean white cloth, then took a draught. She grimaced.

  ‘Being diplomatic doesn’t come naturally to you.’

  ‘If you want me to be honest, it’s disgusting.’

  ‘It takes a while to get used to, is all.’

  I sat down at the table. She sat down next to me. I looked at the skin on her hands. The veins showed through, the thickness of woollen threads.

  ‘Discipline is more important than pleasure. I’ve done the pleasure thing. I’ve taken that to the limit. This is why macrobiotics has been so good for me. I’ve felt so much more alive. You know? It’s like I’m getting close to the essence.’

  ‘Is it like calorie-counting?’

  ‘Oh no. Not at all. Do you know about the yin and the yang?’

  ‘Not much.’

  ‘Suzuki says that all the physical and spiritual diseases come from consuming too much yin. Basically potassium. Or too much yang. Sodium. Usually it’s too much yin. He says grain is the basic food, because it has t
he same five-to-one balance that you find in blood. So what I’m doing is increasing my intake of yang, which is salt, and taking in as little yin as possible.

  ‘Some steamed green vegetables. Seaweed is good. It isn’t just about physical health. It takes you into a place in your head that you’ve never been before. You know? Not even drugs can take you there. You should stay away from that shit Henry gave you, by the way.’

  ‘I don’t think it did me any harm. It was sort of interesting.’

  Strawberry didn’t seem to hear me. Her eyes, although tired, were alive. Then suddenly the light in them guttered. She yawned. The sadness seemed to gain the upper hand again.

  ‘The diet takes a lot out of you at first. It takes a while. You’re getting the poisons out of your body. So until you can get the balance right, until you can get pure, then you’re going to feel worse before you feel better.’

  ‘Right.’

  ‘Are you enjoying yourself here, Adam?’

  It seemed I had shown sufficient interest in her regime to merit some of Strawberry’s attention, which otherwise – it then struck me – rarely seemed to move away from herself.

  ‘I don’t know.’

  ‘What do you think of your Uncle Henry? Still think he’s a queen?’

  ‘Obviously not.’

  ‘I think he cares about you.’

  ‘He seems a good person.’

  ‘No.’ Strawberry’s tone became very insistent. ‘He’s not good. Henry is enlightened. That is very different.’

  I said I didn’t understand.

  ‘He says – what is it? I can’t remember. Oh yes: “Goody-goodies are the enemies of virtue.” Or something like that. Confucius apparently. Or some Chinese guy or other. It’s a Zen trip. He told me he lives a “perpetually uncalculated life in the present”. He’s spontaneous. He’s innocent. The thing that all the rest of us lost long ago. In making our Devil’s bargain. He helps so many people. But he’s suffered so much. It’s made him who he is – but there are scars. I don’t know who he is. Henry would say . . . what would he say? Yeah. That no one knows who they are. That you are too close to yourself to see yourself. And that’s completely fine.’

  She paused.

  ‘I love him. Not in the way you think. But I do love him.’

  Strawberry touched the back of my hand. She took a swig of her drink. It left a greenish crust over her lip, like mould. I noticed there was a pale soft moustache underneath. Then I saw that there was a kind of downy furze all over her face. You could only see it if it caught the light properly.

  ‘Why do you drink that stuff?’ I indicated the empty glass.

  ‘I told you. It helps to purify.’

  ‘Why would you want to be pure?’

  She made no reply, as if it was too stupid a question to reply to.

  ‘How did you meet Henry?’

  ‘I was hitchhiking. He picked me off the side of the road. I didn’t have anywhere to go. I was lost. He took me in.’

  I waited for her to continue, but Strawberry’s train of thought seemed to get derailed before it reached the expected destination. She was often vague and abstracted. She gazed out of the window and stretched her limbs.

  ‘That’s not true, though?’

  Strawberry stopped gazing out of the window, and regarded me steadily.

  ‘Isn’t it?’

  I held her gaze unblinkingly.

  ‘You’re his daughter.’

  Her eyes gave away nothing.

  ‘Who told you that?’

  ‘No one told me. I worked it out.’

  ‘Was it Henry?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  ‘I guessed.’

  She looked sceptical. Without speaking again, she arranged herself on the floor in the lotus posture.

  She closed her eyes. She did not open them again. She just sat there, not moving.

  ‘Are you OK?’

  She didn’t answer.

  Weary of whatever game it was she was playing, I returned to the sun deck and my revision.

  When I emerged a few hours later, Strawberry had gone and Henry had returned. He was at his typewriter, attacking the keys with such ferocity that I thought he was bound to break the thing. He didn’t look up as I entered, but he stopped typing.

  ‘My fingers are hurting. I need a break. I think I’m going to have a swim. Want to join me?’

  ‘Why didn’t you tell me that Strawberry was your daughter?’

  He swung himself round in his chair to face me. He looked grave, but not discomfited.

  ‘How did you work it out?’

  ‘That phrase you use, “the spirit of the times”. Strawberry said her father always used it.’

  ‘I told Strawberry you’d guess. But she insisted.’

  ‘You mean it was her idea to keep it secret?’

  ‘Absolutely. Did you talk to her about it?’

  ‘I tried. She more or less ignored me.’

  ‘Please don’t think badly of her. She’s trying to work through some difficult stuff.’

  ‘Why doesn’t she want me to know that you’re her father?’

  ‘She says I have to earn it. I told you she had a difficult childhood. It was difficult partly because of me. Largely because of me, perhaps. For a long time she wouldn’t acknowledge me as her father. That’s one of the reasons she changed her name – though why she chose something so childish as an alternative, I cannot quite tell. However, over the last year or so we have become somewhat reconciled. But there are still – what would you say? Issues. She says that when I have shown her that I can be a proper father, she will allow me to call her my daughter. To go public, if you will. But until then, we have to keep up this fiction that we are unrelated.’

  ‘What did you do with her when she was a child?’

  ‘To be honest, Adam, I’m not really comfortable talking to you about that. I think that information needs to come from Strawberry. If I give you my side of things, she will think I am pre-empting her. I cannot afford to take that chance – not now that we are close to finding an even keel again. So forgive me. She may share that knowledge with you in good time. She may not. I don’t know. She is in many ways a closed book to me.’

  ‘You’ve been lying to me all this time.’

  ‘I haven’t been entirely truthful. That’s not quite the same thing.’

  ‘Why should I believe anything you say now?’

  ‘You don’t have to. But whether you do or not, it is the truth. I hope before you return to London, you will find that out. Whether it will make you any more pleased with me, I do not know. My behaviour was regrettable. But I had no choice.’

  He reached into his pocket and brought out a packet of Luckies. He held it out to me.

  ‘Cigarette?’

  Half of me wanted to take the packet and throw it in his face. But the other half of me – the half that believed in Henry, even, perhaps, loved him – prevailed. I took the cigarette. He lit it for me and I inhaled.

  ‘You won’t say anything to Raymond about this, will you?’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Because then Strawberry will think I broke my promise. I can’t do that. Strawberry will hold it against me. And she already has a lot to hold against me.’

  ‘I can’t keep it a secret for ever.’

  ‘I know. I’ll talk to her. She can’t keep this up for ever, either. Asking me to prove myself. But then again, she is a very wilful girl.’

  He paused, and looked out of the window. His stare was hard and focused, as if he was inspecting something very closely. But there was nothing there. Then his gaze softened, and he turned back to me.

  ‘So. What about that swim?’

  I changed into my trunks, but when I came back down to the lower deck I saw that Henry had already stripped off and thrown himself into the river. His skin was a little loose and pocked on the arms. He beckoned to me as I stood on the bank, nervous of the shock of cold water.

>   ‘What’s the temperature like?’

  ‘Not too bad.’

  ‘I don’t believe you.’

  ‘I could tell you more. Or you could just get in.’

  I jumped. The river moved sluggishly along, tar-like almost, but the shock was crisp and enlivening. I struck out to where Henry floated. When I reached him, his attention was on something under the surface of the water. He indicated with his hand. A spray of iridescent droplets fell from his arm, were caught by the sun, and made a curtain of rainbow colours in the air.

  ‘Where does the rainbow go when the water disappears?’ he said.

  He pointed at a spot in the water. Just under the surface was a small group of fish darting in oblique angular patterns. Gunmetal grey, they weren’t particularly beautiful. But the patterns they made as they moved together in synchronization were fascinating.

  ‘How does each know what the other is doing? Or is about to do?’ I said.

  ‘I have absolutely no idea. Marvellous, though, isn’t it?’

  I reached out to grab one. They swam away. Henry laughed.

  ‘Like trying to catch yourself.’

  I flushed my face with a handful of water. My body was warming up.

  ‘Shall we swim?’ said Henry. But instead of striking out, he turned and floated on his back and started talking to the sky.

  ‘I have this dream of water. I dream of a river like this, silver and gold at twilight, that I swim along for hours. For days. For ever. It runs through empty space. This dream I have – I always wake from it happy. Perhaps the only time I feel completely that way.’

  ‘Are you unhappy?’

  Henry dipped his head under the water and brought it out again, shaking it to dislodge the water. He wiped his eyes with his hand, scattering droplets on to the surface.

  ‘Happiness, unhappiness. They go together. All of a piece. You can’t have up without down, or heads without tails.’

  ‘There’s no escape then.’

  ‘You can learn how to not make it worse. You can work out how not to rub salt into your own wounds.’

 
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