The last summer of the w.., p.20
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.20

           Tim Lott
 
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  I steered Henry back to the story of the burning bible.

  ‘It’s not easy to explain. I think there was a breakdown in communication about what I was going to be talking about at the service. Wesley knew I was once an ordained priest. He also knew that I styled myself as a radical theologian. I just don’t think he thought through what that meant. But I genuinely didn’t mean any offence.’

  ‘You didn’t mean any offence by burning a bible?’

  ‘I was trying to demonstrate the difference between faith and belief.’

  ‘What is the difference?’

  ‘Belief is about crawling into a hole and pulling the hole in after you. Faith is crawling out of a hole and pulling the space out after you.’

  ‘I don’t think I’m out of my gourd enough to know what that means.’

  ‘I think I am expressing myself perfectly clearly. I merely suggested that there should be a very respectful burning of bibles once a year, to remind us all that for all the beauties and profundities of Christianity, we shouldn’t get hung up on it as the final version of reality. It is simply a clue.’

  ‘That’s when people walked out?’

  Henry paused.

  ‘That’s right. Wesley was unhappy – as you might expect. Ashley, on the other hand, was incandescent.’

  ‘Ash honestly didn’t seem all that bothered when I talked to her about it. Although she did think you were rather rude to her father.’

  ‘What Ash is and what she says are very different things, I suspect. I don’t mean any disrespect to her. I know you’ve become fond of her. But that is my experience.’

  ‘He’s forgiven you, you know. Wesley.’

  ‘Is that so?’

  ‘He sends his best wishes. Says you’re welcome at the rectory any time.’

  Henry shook his head.

  ‘I genuinely believe that Wesley would utterly destroy me if he had the chance. A chance that he’s looking out for all the time. Furthermore, his daughter would do a jig on my corpse while whistling an accompanying tune.’

  ‘But why would he pretend to forgive you?’

  ‘Because pretending is what people do,’ said Henry. ‘I’m going to attend to the chops. Sure I can’t tempt you?’

  ‘I’m fine.’

  It seemed that the subject was closed. Henry resumed clattering in the galley. I returned to my room. A picture of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand stared up at me from my open textbook on the desk. Lacking anything better to do, and aware that I had been tardy about my revision that day, I began reading about Gavrilo Princip’s assassination plan.

  Only it seemed he didn’t have much of a plan. On the day itself, another of his associates from the Black Hand – or the Young Bosnians – had thrown a bomb at the carriage carrying the archduke through the streets of Sarajevo. The archduke then, against all common sense, instructed his driver to take him to hospital to visit an Austrian officer injured by the earlier bomb, rather than abandon the procession immediately. The driver took the intended original route in error. Realizing he had gone the wrong way, he pulled up to reverse – and stopped right in front of Princip.

  Princip, seizing the opportunity, turned his head away so that he couldn’t even see his target, and, with a gun that he was ill-trained to use, killed both the archduke and his wife Sophie, with two shots – something the most brilliant and highly trained assassin might have struggled to do.

  Circumstance and luck. The whole history of the twentieth century resting on a series of accidents. I wondered if my own life was simply fluke. And what a relief it would be if it was.

  Twenty

  By late afternoon the next day, Henry was more or less fully prepared for his ‘Vibrations and Polarities’ lecture that evening. There were smells of garlic and curry powder spicing the air. Oil burners heated three metal trays containing vegetarian curry, lamb stew and chilli con carne. There was an earthenware pot of dhal, a paper plate of brown rice and a huge potato salad, dressed with sour cream and chives, in a Tupperware box.

  Arranged beside the main dishes on a trestle table were ceramic cereal bowls filled with crisps and peanuts, along with piles of paper plates, disposable beakers and plastic cutlery. The wine was Spanish, and of rather poorer quality than anything Henry had ever offered me. There was a jug of beer that he proudly claimed to have brewed himself. The rank, raw odour turned my stomach slightly.

  I had helped, laying out the plates and cutlery, setting up the table. I put out condiments – mainly Indian chutneys – along with bottles of wine and soft drinks. I threw scatter cushions in front of the blackboard Henry would refer to during his talk. I had also set up the sound system outside, trailing an extension lead from the generator. Henry had supplied a microphone ready to be plugged into the amplifier. He was worried that not everybody was going to be able to hear him.

  ‘How many people are you expecting?’ I asked as I rearranged the scatter cushions, trying to get them into some kind of order that was neither too symmetrical nor too chaotic.

  ‘I don’t know. Maybe thirty. At least twenty. I’ve got a modest reputation around here.’

  ‘You have a following?’

  ‘Perhaps that’s too concrete a description. A reputation, perhaps.’

  ‘A reputation as what?’

  ‘A spiritual entertainer, you might say. Others would say a genuine fake.’

  He laughed, and added another pinch of something to a simmering copper pot.

  ‘I’d be inclined to agree with them.’

  Henry whistled tunelessly to himself and attended to final details – straightening the paper tablecloth on the trestle table, laying out some napkins, testing the PA. He spread a few blankets in the spaces between the scatter cushions.

  The event was scheduled to begin at 7 p.m. At six, Henry lit a pile of logs and kindling for a fire, which blazed cheerfully a few yards to the right of the blackboard. At six-thirty the first visitor arrived. He was a middle-aged man who looked a thoroughly improbable candidate for the lecture. He was clean-shaven with oiled hair, and was wearing heavy leather shoes beneath rather shiny grey trousers.

  ‘Mr Templeton?’

  He was stretched and tense, as if he carried struts and wires within that had been adjusted for maximum torque.

  ‘Yes, I’m Henry Templeton,’ said Henry, stretching out his hand. The man took it and shook it briskly.

  ‘I’m from Lexham District Council.’

  ‘How delightful.’

  ‘Fire and Safety,’ said the man. ‘As you know, there have been a lot of forest fires recently. We just wanted to make sure that regulations were being followed.’

  ‘You’re not here for the talk?’ said Henry.

  ‘Not exactly. No, I’m here to make sure it’s all in order. May I ask to see your licence?’

  ‘Licence?’

  ‘For public gatherings of more than twenty people, you need a licence from the council.’

  ‘Oh, I understand,’ said Henry. ‘You’re Wesley Toshack’s man. His stooge.’

  ‘I’m an officer of the council. Not of the Reverend Toshack.’

  ‘You know of him, then?’

  The man looked shifty.

  ‘I know of Wesley Toshack, yes.’

  ‘Fancy!’

  ‘I’m just here to make sure everything goes without a hitch. My name is Pritchard. Now. Do you have a licence?’ He took a notepad and pencil out of his pocket.

  ‘No, I do not. And I do not need one.’

  Pritchard made a note on his pad.

  Henry opened his arms in a welcoming gesture.

  ‘Well, since you’re here, you can help yourself to some food. There’s plenty.’ He waved towards the table.

  ‘As for the licence – that only applies if there’s an entrance fee for the event. Otherwise it is, legally speaking, a private party.’

  ‘There is an entrance fee, Mr Templeton. One pound, I believe.’

  ‘That’s not an entrance fee, it’s a voluntar
y contribution. It is my pleasure to feed these people. I would not be much of a host if I did not offer them something to drink. This is simple hospitality. The voluntary contribution is not for profit. It’s simply a matter of covering my costs.’

  ‘Do you have a licence to sell alcohol?’ said Pritchard.

  ‘I’m not selling alcohol,’ responded Henry, now glancing around him as if losing interest. I saw that he was looking towards the gap in the willow trees, where more people were arriving. ‘There’s a few glasses of wine on the house. The donation is to cover soft drinks and food. Hey, Strawberry!’

  Strawberry had emerged from the curtain of willow branches. She was followed by Pattern, Vanya and Troy, walking arm in arm.

  Henry turned back to Pritchard.

  ‘I can recommend the dhal. The Maharishi Ji gave me the recipe. Excuse me. I’ve got to circulate.’

  Pritchard was left looking uncertain of what to do next. Henry’s knowledge of the law, whether real or feigned, along with his air of intimidating self-confidence, seemed to have stymied him.

  Troy was marching towards us, his accustomed concertina grin firmly in place.

  ‘I told you Troy would get over our disagreement,’ said Henry.

  He moved to greet Troy and the others, hugging them each in turn. As usual, he was looking faintly angry. He held up a hand in greeting when he saw me, and I returned the wave. Vanya wandered over and kissed me on the cheek.

  ‘How’s the self-abuse, boy?’

  ‘Good.’

  ‘Make sure you think good thoughts.’

  ‘I try to think about women who are scantily clad now. Instead of naked.’

  ‘That’s what’s known in the women’s movement as consciousness-raising.’

  I noticed that Henry greeted Strawberry rather formally, merely touching her shoulder rather than kissing her on the cheek. It was as if she was now too delicate to even embrace.

  Now Pattern greeted me with a pat on the arm.

  ‘Hi, Adam.’

  ‘All right?’ I said surlily, and moved away so his hand was no longer touching me.

  ‘You’re angry with me, right?’

  His voice softened. ‘Look, Adam. It was a stupid thing to do, what I did at the seance. I thought the whole thing was so dumb, no one would ever take it seriously. It was just a joke. A laugh. I was a moron. Let me off the hook, will you? I don’t want you to think I’m an even bigger dick than I actually am.’

  He looked genuinely sheepish.

  ‘Forget about it. I was three sheets to the wind.’

  He smacked me on the back.

  ‘Thanks, Adam. Thanks, man. You’re a dude.’

  Henry kept checking his watch. It was five-past seven. Then ten-past. Then quarter-past. No one else came. It was just the five of us and Pritchard.

  Henry looked at Pritchard and said, as if unconcerned, ‘Well, it seems you won’t have to worry about it being a gathering of more than twenty people anyway.’

  Despite his insouciance, Henry’s shoulders had dropped, and he paced listlessly up and down. He looked over the laden table of food, which had hardly been touched. The fire, which had caught and was roaring, sent grey clouds of smoke across the blackboard where the lecture was meant to take place. Henry stopped pacing and took his place next to the PA, ten feet to the side of the fire, in front of the cushions. The smoke was blowing in his face, and he coughed. It seemed he wasn’t quite ready to start – if he intended to go ahead at all. Clearly he had a fading hope that a few more people might turn up. He gazed anxiously at the trees at the edge of the reach. As if on cue, the curtain of willow trembled and two more people walked through.

  It was Ash and Wendy. They were both dressed as I had first seen them, in their contrasting overalls. Wendy was smoking. Ash carried a light canvas bag over her shoulder. Henry looked relieved to see them.

  ‘Is eight a quorum, Adam? Including Mr Pritchard?’

  ‘I don’t know. It’s up to you.’

  Ash shot me a glance, tipped me a wink. They made their way towards Henry.

  ‘Hello, Wendy,’ said Henry. ‘This is a bit out of your comfort zone, isn’t it?’

  ‘What do you know about my comfort zones?’

  ‘Still smoking those vile peppermint cigarettes?’

  Wendy threw her cigarette on the ground. Pritchard looked at her, alert. She stomped it out under her sandal.

  Henry turned to Ash. ‘Surprised to see you here.’

  ‘Nothing much else to do,’ said Ash. She offered £1.

  ‘Forget about it. This isn’t really a public event any more. And if it becomes one, apparently I would be breaking the law. You should mention to your worried friends in the town what kind of influence I have in this area. Won’t you get paid by the old man for the undercover work, anyway? I should introduce you to Pritchard, your associate from the council.’

  He indicated Pritchard, who, satisfied that Wendy’s cigarette was fully extinguished, was spooning chilli con carne into his mouth.

  ‘You’re a cynic, Henry.’

  ‘I’m as far away from a cynic as it is possible to be. Which is why, I think, people like your father take such exception to me.’

  ‘Where’s the loo?’ said Wendy. ‘I’m busting.’

  ‘I’ll show you.’

  Henry led Wendy towards the boat. Ash and I were left alone. She touched me lightly on the arm.

  ‘Don’t be upset that I’m here with Wendy.’

  ‘I’m not.’

  ‘She’s an unhappy girl. She’s lonely. I’m looking out for her.’

  I tried to reach over and kiss her, but she pulled back.

  ‘Can we just cool it while we’re here? I told you, Wendy doesn’t know about us.’

  I called across to Henry, who had given directions to Wendy and was heading towards the blackboard.

  ‘Are you starting, Henry?’

  ‘No,’ said Henry. ‘Not right now.’

  I turned back to Ash. ‘Would you like me to show you around?’

  She looked over at the boat.

  ‘Wendy will take about twenty minutes tarting herself up, knowing her. Go on then, give us a quick tour.’

  I showed her around the boat – my room, Henry’s, the main area. She clucked her approval, offering an occasional ‘nice’ or ‘characterful’ or a less complimentary ‘tatty’. Seeing that Wendy was still apparently in the loo, and with no sign of Henry starting, Ash insisted I give her a quick tour of the grounds as well. After checking with Henry that we had time, we took a brisk walk down the path that led to Strawberry’s shack. In a few minutes we reached the clearing where it was sited.

  ‘What’s this? The garden shed?’

  ‘It’s where Strawberry lives.’

  Ash frowned. ‘It’s tiny.’

  ‘It’s rather nice actually. I’m sure Strawberry wouldn’t mind if we took a look inside.’

  I stepped across and opened the door. Ash stuck her head in, looked around carefully, sniffed and withdrew. I closed the door again.

  ‘See? It’s nice.’

  ‘It smells of cabbage.’

  ‘Wheatgrass.’

  ‘It’s a hovel.’

  ‘“Judge not, lest ye be judged.” Henry’s always quoting that at me.’

  Suddenly Ash pulled me towards her and kissed me, her bag dropping to the ground. I nearly overbalanced. After a minute, we broke apart. I could see my saliva on her lips. She stood with her legs apart. She was breathing heavily. We said nothing.

  Then I heard a call, distant but distinct.

  ‘Adam!’

  It was Troy’s voice.

  ‘We’d better get back.’ I grabbed her hand and pulled her after me.

  When we arrived back at the boat, Wendy was there, still doing her make-up in a pocket mirror. She glared at Ash.

  ‘I’ve got to stay with Wendy now,’ said Ash. ‘See you later.’

  I hurried off to where Henry seemed to be arguing with Troy. The approach of
night made the fire brighter. Ginsberg had appeared. He foraged for crisp crumbs, then slid back into the river. The sky was turning deep scarlet, and the air was thickened with the perfume of the pines and the incense.

  ‘Adam! Where have you been? Henry’s trying to call the whole thing off. I was hoping you could convince him.’

  Henry looked at me sadly.

  ‘I suppose it’s up to Henry really,’ I said feebly.

  Troy looked disappointed.

  ‘Come on, Henry! I’ve paid my money and I want my lecture.’

  ‘Troy, I will be very happy to return your money of course, but . . .’

  ‘We want to hear you, Henry,’ said Strawberry, who had come to join them.

  ‘That’s right!’ chimed in Vanya. ‘You’re the man, Henry.’

  Henry looked doubtful.

  Pattern was the last to add his voice.

  ‘Come on, Henry. We all want to hear what you have to say. Even if it is bollocks.’ He started a chant. ‘Come-on Hen-ry! Come-on Hen-ry!’

  Everyone joined in apart from Pritchard, who stood a little way away, chewing on some pitta bread and looking bemused.

  Henry held up a hand.

  ‘I’m afraid it would simply be too absurd. But anyone who wants to talk to me about anything – well, come right over and chat. And there is lots of food and drink. Let’s do what the rest of the world does. Let’s stop thinking, and have a party!’

  He punched the button on a cassette player. The music that boomed out – he had run a wire from the boat and erected the Wharfedale speakers – was ‘Monkey Man’ by Toots & The Maytals.

  Henry began to dance – a Jamaican skank, such an absurd yet graceful performance that there were outbreaks of laughter, not mocking, but delighted. He gestured for us to start dancing too. Strawberry rose and began moving in her own way, a spidery, rather gothic shimmer. Ash and Wendy followed suit, Ash bumping and grinding, Wendy awkwardly swaying. Even I, self-conscious as I was, could hardly help but shuffle my feet and sway my hips a bit.

  Vanya came over to me, sipping at a plastic cup of white wine. I had watched her knock back several of them already, and she had acquired a slightly glazed look.

 
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