The last summer of the w.., p.18
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.18

           Tim Lott
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  ‘Is that what Strawberry’s doing?’

  ‘It’s what people do.’

  I began to swim, using first crawl, then breaststroke. Henry turned over on his stomach and drew up alongside me. He was a powerful swimmer, but so was I. Both using breaststroke at a casual, easy rate, we swam along with the flow. Henry’s naked behind was intermittently illuminated by the sun, then, submerged, distorted into a kaleidoscope of pinks and browns by the flowing water.

  After a while we came to a bank where a young family – a mother, a father and a young girl about five or six years old – were picnicking. Henry turned and floated on his back, seemingly unaware of, or unconcerned by, the family on the shore. The young girl began to giggle. The parents turned towards us, their faces darkening as their eyes fell on Henry. Henry waved. Instead of responding, they led the girl urgently away from the bank.

  We carried on swimming for maybe ten more minutes, wordlessly. The river helped us with the gentle nudge of its current. The sunshine that came through the trees in patches between the branches, patterning light and dark, exerted a calming, almost mesmeric effect. As we reached a bend, Henry suggested we should swim back.

  He struck back towards the boat. Upstream this time, it was more of a struggle. The family we had passed on the way down had gone. It took us thirty minutes to swim back. By the time we were on dry land again, I felt exhausted.

  I went on to the roof to sunbathe and dry off. After maybe an hour, I fell asleep.

  The sound of an unfamiliar voice woke me up and I made my way down to the living room. Henry, dressed in only a thin cotton shawl, was addressing a tall, skinny policeman, young and pale. His eyes never seemed to stop moving, darting about anxiously as if preparing for attack, and his mouth was working all the time, perhaps on a piece of gum. He had taken his helmet off, and was carrying it under his arm. With his other hand, he was wiping his face with a handkerchief. I only caught the last part of what he was saying to Henry.

  ‘. . . and this isn’t the first time there have been complaints.’

  ‘I haven’t broken any laws.’

  ‘Exposing yourself to children is against the law.’

  ‘I was just swimming.’

  ‘You were swimming nude.’

  ‘On a remote stretch of river. Surely that’s not illegal.’

  ‘What worries us is that you have a criminal record.’

  He put down his helmet on the table, pocketed his handkerchief and fished out a notebook, which he started to examine.

  ‘Not for exposing myself. And not in this country.’

  The policeman read from the notebook.

  ‘“Henry Templeton, possession of a controlled substance, Superior Court of California, San Diego, 1966. Six-month sentence, suspended on unspecified compassionate grounds, two-hundred-dollar fine.”’

  ‘Well, that’s—’

  ‘“Henry Templeton, supplying a controlled substance to a minor, Fresno County Superior Court, 1967. Three months’ sentence, two months served.”’

  He put the notebook away. Henry looked momentarily taken aback.

  ‘How did you come by that information, if I may ask?’

  ‘That’s really not your concern, sir. You don’t deny these offences, presumably?’

  ‘Of course not. But they took place a long time ago. If you’re trying to make me feel guilty, I have to warn you that you are failing miserably.’

  ‘And I have to warn you, Mr Templeton, that frankly your reputation and past suggests somebody who—’

  ‘Somebody who what?’

  ‘There’s no call to interrupt me. Your reputation and past record suggest that your presence on this reach might not be entirely in the interests of the local community.’

  ‘That’s not for you to decide.’

  ‘If you continue to be rude, sir, I’m going to have to—’

  ‘I’m not being rude. I’m merely—’

  Henry, clearly exasperated, checked himself.

  The policeman stopped chewing his real or imaginary gum and his eyes stilled themselves and focused on Henry. A note of pomposity sounded in his voice, inflating its high, almost childish treble into a balloon of attempted gravity.

  ‘Now look. Everyone has a right to live as he pleases. But there have been complaints about noise, about crowds, about drug-taking down on this boat. What with this latest incident, it all adds up to . . . Well, it adds up to the sort of disruption we could do without around here.’

  There was a long pause. Henry and the policeman stared at each other. Then the policeman’s eyes began to dart again, and his mouth to work. He picked up his helmet and placed it firmly on his head.

  ‘However, I’m going to let you off with a caution this time.’

  He paused, apparently expecting a ‘thank you’ from Henry.

  ‘You mean you couldn’t talk the parents into pressing charges for such an absurdly trivial incident.’

  ‘If I hear reports of you swimming in the river with no clothes on again, you’re going to be in a lot of trouble. Do you understand?’

  There was a smudge of bum fluff under the policeman’s nose. Henry, it seemed, couldn’t quite bring himself to answer.

  ‘Do you understand, Mr Templeton?’

  ‘It’s Doctor Templeton.’

  The policeman buckled his helmet under the chin.

  ‘I don’t care if you’re Doctor bloody Who. Just don’t let me catch you in the river again with your kit off.’

  He looked up at me, just long enough for me to register that I was of no importance. Then he made his way back towards where his police car was parked. He turned before he reached the curtain of trees that led off the reach.

  ‘I’ll be watching out for you, Mr Templeton.’

  ‘Doctor,’ Henry said, this time quietly, as if to himself.

  As the police car disappeared through the fringe of trees, Henry sat himself down at the dining table, shaking his head in disbelief.

  I sat next to him. He seemed downcast.

  ‘Do you think this is to do with the hearing?’ I said.

  ‘I doubt that even Wesley Toshack was able to anticipate that I was going to swim naked and therefore plant a family on the riverbank. I suppose it could have an impact on the case. The lease specifically insists I act with “due decorum”. Whatever that means. It’s something for them to cling to, ludicrous though it is. But they didn’t have enough to bring a criminal charge. And if the family won’t press charges, then they are unlikely to want to put in an appearance at the hearing.’

  ‘What if you lose the hearing?’

  ‘I doubt very much that it will come to that. As I say, their evidence is very thin. Though I am rather surprised they’ve managed to access those old court records.’

  ‘But what if you do?’

  ‘Then I lose the case. Or, to be more precise, I lose everything.’

  He stared out of the window and set his face in an expression that verged on bitterness.

  ‘They’re determined to get rid of me.’

  ‘Who is?’


  ‘But what about your friends? They’ll speak up on your behalf. That must count for something.’


  ‘I don’t know. Troy? Vanya?’

  He gave a dry, almost bitter laugh.

  ‘They don’t want to hear what I have to say any more. They want the simplicity of magic. Or money. Or the delights of moral outrage. All the usual things on the infernal menu.’

  He took out a cigarette paper and tobacco and started to roll them with hands that shook slightly.

  ‘How are you getting on with your History revision?’ Suddenly he seemed perfectly cheerful.

  ‘Pretty well,’ I said. ‘I’ve got all the causes memorized now.’

  Henry smiled. Outside the window, a gaily painted boat was chugging along, with a party of young, denim-clad daytrippers. They were drinking wine and laughing. Henry waved and the people on t
he boat waved back and hooted.

  We watched until they receded into the distance. Henry gathered up his legal papers, put on his glasses and began to examine them. I assumed this was the signal that my presence wasn’t required any more.


  I tried to write a reply to Ray. I found myself a blank sheet of thin, unlined A4 typing paper on Henry’s desk, borrowed one of his antique English fountain pens, sat down at my own desk and waited for the words to come.


  Dear Dad.



  That was as far as I got. However long I sat there, my mind could produce little more than a few generic sentences – ‘How are you?’, ‘Hope you are well’, ‘Thanks for your letter’. Beyond those basic pleasantries, rummage as I might, I could find nothing.

  I had never had any reason in my life previously to articulate my relationship with Ray. He was just there, being Ray. To write a letter to my grieving father, and to make it in any way meaningful, would require resources that I was unable to muster. To describe the parade of events and characters at the Ho Koji seemed merely to rub his face in the sense of inadequacy I could see he suffered over Henry. I could not tell him that he had a niece either – not without Henry’s or Strawberry’s say-so.

  So how could I write anything that was not insincere or provocative? I knew that Ray would be pleased to get a letter from me whatever I wrote, even if it contained a series of trivial news bites and meaningless clichés, as his had. But I could not bring myself to fill the emptiness of the paper with still more emptiness. After half an hour or so I put Henry’s pen down and gave up the struggle, leaving nothing on the page but Dad and an inkblot that, as it spread through the porous paper, came to resemble a black sun, out of focus, expanding.

  That same day – Friday – I had arranged to meet Ash at the usual place. Henry immediately picked up on my mood.

  ‘Someone’s cheerful.’

  ‘It’s not a crime.’

  I didn’t feel inclined to say any more. Henry’s hostility to Ash made me even more taciturn than usual.

  ‘Any particular reason?’

  ‘Not really.’

  Henry looked at me shrewdly, then turned back to his papers.

  ‘Sorry. Naturally nosey.’

  I said goodbye and headed to where the grocer’s bike lay. I lifted it off its side and began cycling. After I had negotiated the field and was five minutes into the journey into Lexham, I noticed a woman up ahead walking by the hedgerow. Her hair was exactly the colour and style of my mother’s.

  Out of nowhere, a great choking sob jerked out of me, so powerful I could no longer cycle. I abruptly stopped the bike and straddled the frame. The woman turned and looked at me. She looked nothing like my mother. She was fifteen years younger, with a sharp, cunning face and moist, loose lips.

  ‘Are you all right?’ Her voice registered slight suspicion rather than sympathy.

  I nodded, and wiped my face with the back of my wrist. There was no dampness there.

  ‘Do you need help?’

  ‘It’s OK.’

  The woman shrugged and resumed her walk.

  I dismounted the bike and lay on the ground on my back for several minutes, examining the sky for something other than hollowness.

  I didn’t know if I could meet Ash any more.

  All the same, after a few more minutes, I clambered back on the bike and set off unsteadily for the village centre. I stopped briefly at a stream, washed my face and plastered down my hair. I cycled as hard as I could, exhausting myself, making my lungs burn.

  The moment I arrived at the clock tower, Ash seemed to know that something was wrong. She moved towards me, inspected my face carefully, then enfolded me in her arms. I felt myself go limp.

  After a while, I pulled away. I didn’t feel as ashamed as I had expected to.

  ‘Thank you,’ I said simply.

  ‘I didn’t do anything,’ said Ash.

  ‘You were there. You are here. How did you know?’

  ‘I could see you were upset.’

  ‘Was it so obvious?’

  ‘Was it because of your mother?’

  Evie was part of it. But encroaching on to the ragged perimeter that surrounded her loss was the image of my father, dusting, dusting.

  The loneliness of people seemed insupportable.

  Ash continued talking in a low, soothing voice.

  ‘I lost my mother when I was eight. It wasn’t until much later that I found out that she killed herself. My father couldn’t even bury her in the churchyard.’

  ‘I guess that trumps me.’ I attempted a smile.

  ‘I don’t normally talk about it.’

  ‘I’m sorry. Being flippant. I guess I’m not sure what to say.’

  ‘You don’t need to say anything. I’m just trying to explain that I know something of what you feel. If it wasn’t for my father . . .’

  ‘How did he cope with it?’

  ‘He was very strong. His faith got him through.’ She took my hand. ‘I love him more than anything, you know, Adam.’

  I wanted, wished, hoped I could speak the same words about Ray. But they would not come – either because they were not true, or because they were too true.

  ‘Would you like to meet him?’

  This took me aback. I barely knew Ash. I was possessed by some kind of received wisdom that you only met the parents of a girlfriend when you were well on the way to engagement.

  ‘I’m not sure.’

  ‘Don’t worry, I know what Henry thinks about him. But I have a strange feeling you two might get along.’

  I hesitated, fearful that by agreeing I was making some promise, some commitment that I was barely aware of. I was also worried about betraying Henry. I looked at Ash. She was staring at the ground as if preparing herself for a rejection.

  ‘I guess I have a right to form my own opinion. About your father.’

  She took my hand again, and we began to walk.

  We moved through the thick, sticky air towards the church. One or two people we passed stared with naked curiosity.

  ‘Everyone feeds on everyone else’s business here,’ said Ash. ‘The town runs on gossip.’

  I started talking about the retake of my A level. Ash had already been offered a place at Bristol University to study Biology. She listened carefully as I told her how the exams had no longer seemed to matter after Evie’s death. That I wasn’t sure they mattered even now.

  ‘It depends what you mean by “matter”, I suppose,’ said Ash. We were only a few hundred yards now from the rectory where Ash lived with her father. ‘If you think your exams don’t matter, isn’t that the same as saying your future doesn’t matter?’

  We arrived at the rectory gate. The house was cartoon-cosy. Vines covered old red bricks. There was a green tile roof. The gutters were decorated with verdigris. The door was a thing of beauty, some rough-hewn piece of oak that looked centuries old and was twice the size of a normal door. Ash let herself in using an old mortice key that looked like it would open a dungeon or raise a portcullis.

  The door opened directly into a large, light room furnished with what, even to my untrained eye, were exquisite antiques. The window was framed with heavy, tied-back floral curtains. There were real paintings on the walls, landscapes and portraits of sleek horses and ruddy-cheeked children. They had the sheen of antiquity.

  Taking up most of the space on an overstuffed, distressed red-leather sofa propped against the furthest wall was Ash’s father. He looked up as we entered. His thick, immaculate brown hair was brilliantined and clipped short at the sides and back. His trousers were brown corduroy and he wore a white shirt, a beige tie and a wine-coloured V-neck sleeveless pullover.

  ‘Hello, Ashley,’ he said softly. Even in this innocent greeting, his voice held a faint intimation of power, of conviction. He had a barely discernible Welsh accent. His eyes fell on me. I felt immediately that they were categorizing me, puttin
g a brand on my forehead.

  ‘You must be Adam.’

  ‘Are you all right, Dad?’ said Ash, looking concerned.

  She left my side and walked quickly over to the Reverend Toshack. He held up his hand and smiled.

  ‘Mrs Sparrow left us. I was at her bedside. I watched her pass.’

  He looked up at me. ‘Mrs Sparrow was one of our oldest parishioners. I must have known her for twenty years. Please sit down, Adam. I’m sorry. I’m sure this isn’t what you expected. It’s really not fair on you. I’m being inhospitable.’

  I felt tongue-tied, but there was a space into which I was required to insert a remark.

  ‘Don’t you get used to it?’

  Toshack looked at Ash, who shrugged, then back at me.

  ‘Get used to what, son?’

  ‘You know. Being a vicar? People dying?’

  I immediately regretted the question. Embarrassment often had the effect of making me blunt.

  ‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to . . .’

  Toshack stood up. His head almost touched the low ceiling. He walked over to me and held out his hand. I shook it.

  ‘The answer is no. You never really do get used to it. And I don’t mind you asking. You can call me Wesley, by the way. I’m genuinely sorry to have greeted you with such a drama. Could I get you a cup of tea at all?’

  ‘I’d prefer coffee.’

  ‘Mrs Taylor!’

  He raised his voice very slightly. Once again, I felt the power that he held in reserve. A diminutive, pinch-faced woman entered the room. She was about seventy, had crimped white hair and was wearing a knee-length yellow floral-print dress. ‘Could you fix Adam here a cup of coffee? How do you take it, Adam?’

  ‘White, no sugar. Thank you.’

  Without speaking a word or offering a nod, Mrs Taylor disappeared back into the kitchen. Wesley gestured for me to sit down. I did so, and rubbed my knees with my hands in small circles, nervously. Ash came and sat on the chair adjacent to mine and Toshack returned to the sofa.

  ‘I think, before I say anything else, I should say that your uncle and I aren’t really on speaking terms. Or rather, he’s not on speaking terms with me. Of course, I’m happy to see him or talk to him any time.’

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