The last summer of the w.., p.19
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.19

           Tim Lott
 
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  ‘Dad is on the committee trying to get his boat removed from the reach,’ said Ash.

  ‘I happen to be part of the committee, yes. It’s nothing personal. It’s a matter of precedent. Over the last couple of years, we’ve had a number of other boats trying to moor on that stretch of river, and we’ve had long and expensive legal battles to remove them. As long as Henry’s there, there’s a constant temptation for travelling people of one kind or another to set up home. Now I personally am not that vexed by it – I think we should be open to those who choose different styles of life. But a lot of the local community are not of the same mind. And as a councillor, as well as a representative of the Church, I am duty-bound to represent their interests and concerns. However, I understand that your uncle may well take it personally.’

  ‘I heard that the rift between you was about something else,’ I said. ‘Some kind of appearance at the church?’

  ‘Henry made a speech in the church. It was a little . . .’

  ‘It upset some of the parishioners,’ said Ash.

  ‘I know it seems strange to be talking about these matters when we only met a moment ago. But I feel I would be talking to you, inviting you into my house, under false pretences if I didn’t come right out and say this. To clear the air, as it were. You might feel some issue of loyalty, I don’t know. I just want to tell you right out that I bear your uncle personally no ill will. However, if the fact of a dispute between us makes you uncomfortable, I will understand completely if you wish to save . . . this meeting for another time. Or avoid it altogether.’

  Mrs Taylor walked in with the coffee and biscuits, and set them on a table next to me. Ash stared at me expectantly, waiting for me to accept the offering. I picked up a biscuit and bit into it. Crumbs flaked on to the carpet. Embarrassed, I bent to try and retrieve them, but Wesley indicated for me to leave them alone. Mrs Taylor had now delivered a cup of tea to him.

  ‘Is it true that he set fire to a bible in your church?’

  ‘Henry was rude,’ said Ash.

  ‘I’m sure he didn’t see it that way,’ said Wesley. ‘I think the points he was trying to make were a little too . . . subtle for our congregation.’

  ‘Is that the real reason you’re trying to drive him off the boat?’

  ‘Absolutely not. The two issues are not connected. That’s water under the bridge. It’s simply that if your uncle is allowed to continue staying there, in law a precedent will be set. You see, since a houseboat is not a permanent structure, it occupies the same category as a caravan or, for that matter, a tent. An encampment of some kind could be established, and if we tolerate the boat it will undermine our power to do anything about it. We have a gypsy problem around here, apart from anything else. I personally like Henry very much. But we can’t have one law for him and another law for the rest of us. Naturally, Henry doesn’t see it that way.’

  ‘So – if you don’t mind me asking, Mr – Reverend – Toshack, on what basis are you trying to get him out?’

  ‘I’ll be honest with you, Adam. Any method we can. As far as I’m concerned, it’s for the good of the community. As you may know, there are stipulations in the lease about the behaviour of residents. Sometimes Henry sails close to the wind there. His “gatherings”. Rumours of drug use. I’ve heard he has some girl down there who’s little more than a skeleton. What’s going on there?’

  ‘I suppose you’re talking about Strawberry.’

  ‘Is that her name? She doesn’t look like there’s much juice in her.’ He gave a thin laugh.

  ‘She’s someone Henry is helping. She doesn’t live on the boat. There’s a cabin a little way off where she stays. There’s nothing between them, if that’s what you’re suggesting.’

  ‘I’m not suggesting anything,’ said Toshack. ‘Your uncle knows he’s always very welcome at the rectory. He also knows that I like him greatly. I hope you will send him my best wishes.’

  He looked at Ash and Ash nodded.

  Now he smiled at me.

  ‘So. How did you come to meet my beautiful daughter?’

  Ash and I walked back through the town to where I’d parked my bike. I felt that the sun had barely moved since we had set off for the rectory. Time itself was slow that summer, as if snagging on some invisible impediment. Ash and I held hands. She seemed, at that moment, in the nature of a sun herself, rising rather than falling, a source of heat and light and nourishment.

  We stopped as we passed a huge oak tree, one of several that decorated a patch of open green space in the middle of the town. I began kissing Ash. She kissed me back. She was so tender, so slight. It was like a breeze in my mouth.

  People were beginning to stare, and we broke apart and continued walking back to my bike. I knew she had a shift at the buttery in thirty minutes. She held a plastic bag with her uniform in – a white pinafore dress and a pale green cotton blouse.

  I didn’t want her to go.

  ‘Do you believe all that stuff?’ I said.

  ‘What stuff?’

  ‘God. Jesus.’

  ‘Some of it.’

  ‘I’ve always wondered about the Holy Ghost. Is it really a ghost? Where does that fit in?’

  ‘I’m not sure I’m very good on the fine points of theology. You should ask my father.’

  ‘Would you call yourself a Christian?’

  ‘Why do you keep asking me about that? Does it really matter so much?’

  ‘The kids at school who were Christians were all freaks.’

  Time seemed to be speeding up as we approached the bike. I felt for my padlock key in my pocket.

  ‘I think my dad liked you.’

  ‘When can we meet again, Ash?’

  ‘I’m coming to Henry’s “happening” tomorrow night.’

  ‘Really? Why are you doing that? I thought you disliked him.’

  ‘It’s not that I dislike him, Adam. I just think he was rude to my father. And I’m coming because I want to see you. But I’m bringing that girl you saw me with first time we met. Wendy. We’d arranged to go out ages ago, and I can’t really break it. I’ve talked her into coming down, in the hope there might be some available boys. She’s desperate for some kind of romance.’

  ‘Oh.’

  ‘Do you mind if we play it cool? Wendy doesn’t know about us. She’s still got that “best friends” thing going on. She’ll be jealous if she knows about you.’

  ‘I don’t mind.’

  ‘Thanks for understanding.’

  She gave me a final kiss. At the same time her hand brushed lightly – and, I was sure, deliberately – against my groin.

  Nineteen

  When I arrived back at the boat, there was a Citroën Dyane parked in the field. I recognized it as Troy’s car. Troy was sitting across from Henry on the strip of land next to the boat, Easy Rider shades perched loosely on his nose and a pair of Bermuda shorts slung low enough to reveal the first inch of the furrow that separated the cheeks of his rear. His shirt was off and his back was arched to bask in the sun. Henry was examining some papers on his lap. Strawberry was lying down on a beach towel next to them. Her tan seemed to be fading, overtaken by a porridge-like wanness.

  Troy looked up. He raised a hand.

  ‘Hi, kid.’

  His smile was lazy and seemed to have the stretch potential of an accordion. I nodded. Henry barely glanced at me. His attention was concentrated on the sheets of paper in front of him, which I now saw were covered with numbers serried in neat columns.

  Strawberry had her eyes closed. I could see her eyeballs moving under the skin. I wondered if she was dreaming, and if so, what she dreamed about.

  Troy followed my gaze.

  ‘Amazing woman,’ he said, lowering his voice, either to indicate intimacy between him and myself or to prevent Strawberry hearing him. The voice had an attractive growl to it. ‘Incredible will-power. Anyone else would have given up weeks ago. Not Straws. She takes it to the limit. Every time, she takes it to the limit.’
r />
  I sat down. Troy offered me a cigarette, which I took.

  ‘Where have you been?’ Henry looked up. I noted a rare hint of sharpness in his voice.

  ‘In Lexham. Seeing Ash.’ I paused. ‘And her father. He seemed nice.’

  Henry stared at me.

  ‘You met Wesley?’

  ‘I went to the rectory, yes.’

  ‘I see.’

  He paused, as if he was shuffling through a number of potential responses. In the end he just said:

  ‘Watch yourself, Adam. They’re not all that they seem.’

  ‘I know you fell out with Wesley, but he doesn’t seem to bear you any grudge.’

  Troy began to laugh.

  ‘Fell out? That’s putting it mildly. Toshack would have ripped his fucking head off if he’d had the chance. And then fed it to the congregation with a side of brimstone.’

  At that point the sound of Strawberry retching interrupted the flow of the conversation. Troy handed her a tissue and she wiped her mouth, where there was a thin trace of liquid. She was smiling with delight.

  ‘That must be nearly the last of the poisons. Look, there’s hardly anything of it.’

  ‘You’re brave, Strawberry. Deranged, but brave.’

  I looked at Henry. He said nothing.

  ‘She doesn’t look well,’ I said.

  ‘She knows what she’s doing,’ said Troy.

  ‘Don’t talk about me as if I’m not here! Suzuki says—’

  ‘I know Kenzaburo Suzuki,’ said Henry. ‘I’m going to write to him. I think, Strawberry, you have misunderstood the diet.’

  ‘How can I have misunderstood it? It’s there in black and white.’ She pointed to the book, Macrobiotics and the Zen Way, which was lying on the grass beside her.

  ‘Take it easy, Henry,’ said Troy. ‘You know she’s recovering. You know this is better than what there was before. And you know the way she was before and who that was down to. So just leave her alone.’

  ‘You’ve always said I’ve got to find my own way. Make my own mistakes.’

  Henry went back to staring at the figures. Troy looked at me and winked.

  ‘What are you doing, Henry?’ I said, trying to make out the contents of the page.

  ‘He’s trying to make some of that do-re-mi for once in his life.’

  Henry ignored us both and turned over another page. Troy came and sat next to me. His right leg bobbed up and down as if he found it difficult to keep still.

  ‘The world is changing. When the world changes, there’s fortunes to be made. All you need is two things. Imagination. And some cap-ee-tal. I got the imagination. Henry got the capital.’

  ‘Access to capital,’ said Henry, without looking up. ‘I have a banker acquaintance who would make a loan to the business on my say-so. If I’m convinced there’s something in it.’

  ‘Together, Henry, we’ll be an unbeatable team. The only problem is—’

  ‘The only problem is that your “crystal healing powers” are horseshit,’ said Henry quietly.

  ‘Maybe they are, maybe they’re not. Who cares? People believe that they help them. Maybe they do help them. Where’s the harm in that? And it’s just the beginning. There’s medicine – natural medicines. Homeopathic. Organic. Flower remedies. This stuff is flying off the market stalls.’

  ‘You know the medicine shows in America at the turn of the century?’ said Henry. ‘They used to sell sugar and water and tell everyone it was a potion that would solve all their ills. People made millions. People aren’t that gullible any more, Troy. This is just a blip. When people see through it, they’ll put it behind them. It’s a passing fad.’

  He put the papers neatly into a pile and got up.

  ‘What’s your point, Henry?’

  ‘What I’m saying is, I’m not going to ask my friend to put money into conning people with sugar-water and rocks. And even if I was, it would never make a long-term profit. People simply aren’t that dumb.’

  Troy shook his head in disbelief.

  ‘You’ve said a few things that have shocked me in our long and fruitful relationship, Henry. But that is the most shocking. People aren’t stupid? Are you kidding me?’

  ‘No, they’re not stupid. They’re just ignorant. People like you make sure they stay that way.’

  ‘So let me get this straight. You’re not coming in on this?’

  ‘No. No, I’m not, Troy. I’m sorry. I’d really like to help. But that’s how I feel.’

  Troy snorted, and snatched the papers back from Henry.

  ‘And you think the people who buy my stuff have got their heads up their asses. That’s a good one, Henry. Yeah. From the chief head-ass guy.’

  Henry looked at me and smiled fondly. It was as if he was seeing me for the first time that day.

  ‘Hi, stupid.’

  ‘Hi, stupid.’

  ‘How about a swim?’

  ‘Sure. Why not?

  When we came out of the water, both Strawberry and Troy had left. Henry and I towelled ourselves down.

  ‘Are they angry with you?’

  ‘Most of Strawberry’s anger is reserved for herself. As for Troy, he’s never angry for long. Underneath his untrammelled materialism and irreducible rascality, he has rather a sweet nature. I find him frustratingly likeable.’

  I threw my towel down and put on a robe.

  ‘Uncle Henry?’

  Henry sat down naked. I made an effort to avoid looking at his genitals.

  ‘I don’t get all this. I don’t get the set-up. In fact, I don’t get you.’

  ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘My dad said you’d done all these things. I found some of the things he said hard to swallow.’

  ‘“Things”?’

  ‘Is it true that you knew The Beatles?’

  ‘John and George better than the other two. But yes, I know them.’

  I duly noted the present tense. Henry got up and put on his robe and gestured that I should follow him back to the boat. Once we had boarded, he reached into one of the cupboards that was built into seats in the main room. He found an old biscuit tin, speckled with rust spots, and rummaged around. After a few seconds he brought out a black and white photo. Sure enough, there was Henry with John Lennon and George Harrison in a bar somewhere, holding bottles of beer and wearing flower garlands around their necks. They were all toasting the camera. John had his arm around Henry.

  ‘That was in Rishikesh. I was getting drugs for them,’ Henry said matter-of-factly.

  ‘You were a drug dealer?’

  ‘A very good one. Honest. Dependable. Personally abstemious. It’s a rare quality in that trade. Of course, that’s all way behind me now.’

  He put the photo away and closed the cupboard.

  ‘I’ll show you the rest of my gallery before you go back to London. Right now, I’m famished.’

  He began clattering around in the galley area. Outside, darkness was gathering.

  ‘You want something to eat?’ He inspected a few cupboards and the fridge. ‘I could make pasta all’amatriciana. Or I have some very good lamb cutlets.’

  ‘I’m not hungry, thanks. Tell me about what happened in the church. With the bible? Telling people to wash their mouths out when they said the word “Jesus”.’

  ‘Such a fuss over nothing. It’s no different from saying, “When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” The point is not to mistake the map for the territory. The symbol for what is being symbolized. That’s all I was saying. It was a kind of joke. Not everyone has the same sense of humour as me, it appears.’

  ‘How did you even get to know Wesley Toshack in the first place? You don’t seem like natural soulmates.’

  Henry popped the cork from a bottle of red wine. He poured a glass for me, but took only water for himself.

  ‘I only became friends with Wesley last year. We bumped into one another in a pub in Lexham. I have a doctorate in Divinity, and him being a man of God, we got talkin
g. He learned that I had once been an episcopal priest in America.’

  ‘You were a priest?’

  It occurred to me, not for the first time, that Henry was a fantasist, despite the photographic evidence of his friendship with The Beatles. His life seemed too improbable to be fully credible.

  ‘I had my own chapel in Chicago. It was very popular with the public. Congregations were busting down the doors to get in, whereas before my arrival church attendances were ailing. We tried out all sorts of new things. Theology was a very exciting field at the time.’

  Henry told me how he had run the church using religious influences from a variety of different traditions. There had been chants and dancing, rituals borrowed from Hinduism and Buddhism, prayers and hymns, candles and incense. The Catholic Mass had been appropriated for its air of mystery. It had been, according to Henry, ‘a radical experiment in pluralistic spirituality’. It turned into – again, according to Henry – the most popular church that the diocese had ever known. From half-empty pews, there were people queuing outside. The parties Henry held after the services became legendary.

  But Henry’s excessive liberality proved to be his downfall. Drugs and drink began to make appearances among the congregation, the former in a semi-sanctioned attempt to enrich spiritual life. Sexual contact between the congregants was given the stamp of approval.

  It didn’t take long for a newspaper exposé to get under way. The bishop who ran the diocese grew tired of the controversy surrounding Henry’s activities and made it clear that if he didn’t resign, he would be defrocked.

  It was shortly afterwards, Henry told me, that he went to India. He spent years there, travelling, dealing, living on the road. Then he returned, lived in a squat in Chelsea for a while, spending much of his time looking after a friend who was seriously ill. It was the friend who owned the houseboat. Henry supported him with what was left of the money from his drug-dealing days, then the friend died. He left the boat to Henry in his will.

  Henry refurbished the Ho Koji – which had been entirely decrepit – and came to live in it, but it turned out he had also inherited legal complications. The lease, Henry admitted, was riddled with difficult and problematic terms which strictly controlled the behaviour of the residents on the boat – since the freehold on the land belonged to the Church.

 
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