The last summer of the w.., p.21
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.21

           Tim Lott
 
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  She gestured over to Strawberry, who was dancing, not quite with, but in the same general vicinity as, Pattern. They were talking animatedly at the same time. Pattern was jabbing his finger at Strawberry as if accusing her of something. She raised her eyebrows and shook her head.

  ‘Pattern seems even more indignant than usual,’ I said.

  ‘He’s knocked Moo up again. Can you believe it? After all that drama. Trying to get her to terminate a second time. I told her to hold out for herself. But she’s weak. Can’t imagine life without a man. Why do women love men like that?’

  ‘What’s your husband like?’

  ‘He’s all right. Bit of a standard model. Doesn’t listen. Misses the point. Likes cars and football. But decent enough.’

  ‘Not a rapist then?’

  ‘I doubt he’d be up to it. Troy says I cut his balls off years ago.’

  Strawberry looked over and waved.

  ‘That girl is a proper mess,’ said Vanya.

  ‘So everyone says. But maybe she’s right. Maybe she really is purifying herself.’

  ‘Needs more than a few grains and vitamins to unfuck her head. After what she’s been through.’

  ‘What has she been through?’

  ‘Let me explain something to you.’

  She held my leg for balance as she lowered herself on to a scatter cushion.

  I sat down next to her and she put an arm around me. She smelled of oranges and tobacco. Also, inevitably, patchouli oil, although it could have been coming from any of the women around me. All of them seemed to reek of the stuff.

  ‘What the hell is that patchouli stuff made of? Some kind of flower? Or do they mix it up in a lab somewhere?’

  She ignored me. ‘So I was telling you about Strawberry.’

  ‘Yeah.’

  ‘What do you know about her and Henry? About their relationship? To . . . one another. I’m not giving away any secrets, right?’

  I hesitated.

  ‘You mean that they’re . . . sort of . . . related?’

  ‘You’re not as dumb as you pretend to be. What else do you know?’

  ‘Not much.’

  She leaned in to me conspiratorially.

  ‘What I heard is this. Henry took off when she was about five to travel America. That whole Kerouac On the Road shit. He drank with bums, slept on park benches. In the end he became a bum himself. A drunk, a street rat. Then he cleaned up. Not before he nearly died of whatever. But he didn’t go back to look after Strawberry. Too busy discovering himself. Went to India and joined an ashram, which is where he started on all this spiritual shit. He was gone ten years. Ten fucking years, leaving her with her crazy mother, who was a whore, to put it mildly.’

  ‘I thought he became a priest.’

  ‘Never heard that one. Henry told you that?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Did he tell you that her mother had Strawberry out turning tricks at the age of thirteen? Did he tell you that during that time he never once got in touch with her?’

  I was aware of my blink rate increasing.

  ‘Did he tell you that a bunch of guys practically raped her while her mother stood by and did nothing?’

  ‘Bullshit.’

  ‘It’s true. Unless Strawberry’s making it up. And why should she make it up? She told us at Shrew in a consciousness-raising group. Did she tell you that she was strung out on DMT for half the time?’

  ‘Something like that, yes. Why are you spilling all this?’

  ‘Because,’ said Vanya, ‘I want you to understand something about people that you don’t yet understand. That you don’t want to understand.’

  ‘What’s that?’

  ‘That people are terrible, Adam.’

  She took my face in her hands and gazed directly into my eyes.

  ‘Under the surface, they’re terrible.’

  She let go of me, then took a deep swig of wine.

  ‘Myself included,’ she added. ‘Very much.’

  ‘Not everybody’s terrible,’ I said.

  Vanya shrugged. ‘If you say so. I mean, I guess everyone has different experiences.’

  ‘So how did Strawberry end up here?’

  ‘Henry rolled back into town – Sacramento – when Strawberry was fifteen. By then her mother was in a crazy-house, and Strawberry was sleeping on the floors of “friends”. So-called. Henry had come by some money, somehow. I heard he stole it from the Maharishi Ji himself.’

  ‘It was drug-dealing.’

  ‘Whatever it was, he brought her back to England. He’s been looking after her ever since. Or what he calls “looking after”, which seems to involve him leaving her alone in order to slowly murder herself. Big of him, I guess. Big old Henry.’

  ‘You’re bitter.’

  ‘I’m not bitter. Life is bitter. I’m just pointing it out. You’ll understand when you’re older.’

  Henry loomed up.

  ‘What are you two talking about?’

  ‘Vanya thinks people are all rotten.’

  ‘Vanya’s wrong. People aren’t bad. But they are, very often, of rather poor quality.’

  ‘You should know, Henry.’

  She got up and staggered off in the direction of Pattern, who was scowling at no one in particular and picking violently at dry, brown tufts of grass.

  I looked around for Ash, but she was nowhere in sight.

  Twenty-one

  ‘Why do you think no one turned up?’ I said to Henry over the blare of the music, which was still reggae, something I didn’t recognize, very bass-driven and heavy in the air.

  ‘Clearly I should have given away free crystals as an inducement.’

  ‘Seriously.’

  He turned back, a puzzled look on his face.

  ‘It’s hard to say. I think what I am saying is perfectly simple and uncontroversial. But everyone seems to either take exception to it, or find it of no interest. It baffles me.’

  He stopped, searching for words. It was something Henry rarely did. He always spoke so fluently that it seemed as if someone was speaking through him.

  ‘I don’t know. It’s as if people are not satisfied or willing to understand the world. Or other people. They want magic – not cheap magic like mine, but real magic. Crystals and angels. Or they want power. Or they are angry and they want retribution. Or justice. Or confirmation of their victimhood. Or some way of thinking that will make them better than everyone else. And I don’t have anything like that to give.’

  Strawberry shouted over the music: ‘Come on, Henry, give us something. Please. Not the whole lecture. Just something.’

  There was a round of ‘Yeah’s and ‘Go for it, Henry’s.

  Henry looked around at the faces, which seemed genuinely expectant, and held up a hand.

  ‘Listen to the music for a moment. Consider it. Feel it.’

  The thudding bass dominated everything, almost shaking the ground. Everyone stopped dancing and just listened. I tried to feel the bass line with my body.

  ‘Strawberry, could you turn it off, please?’

  Strawberry reached over and hit the stop button. I looked around for Ash, but she seemed to have disappeared somewhere. Henry fixed us, one by one, with his eyes. We all fell silent. When he spoke again, his voice had changed – it was more intimate, it drew you in.

  ‘Let me tell you a story. I was friends with a woman once who had been blind since birth. A wonderful woman, a poet and a seer. She loved gardening. And yet she could never see the colourful plants and flowers that she brought to fruition with her fingers and her skill.’

  He paused, took his pipe out of his pocket, lit it and pulled on it. He briefly closed his eyes, as if lost in thought, then opened them again.

  ‘This woman, she didn’t know what colour was – obviously. But more interestingly, she didn’t know what darkness was either. She didn’t know what blackness was. Why? Because she had nothing to compare it with.

  ‘This demonstrates a very important pri
nciple. That we only know what we know by contrasts. And that is why we have vibrations. That is why we have rhythms. That is why we have life counterpointed by death.’

  He paused.

  ‘You’re looking blank.’

  There was laughter.

  ‘Let me explain further.’

  From somewhere, he produced two tuning forks. First he struck one on the edge of the blackboard. It sounded high and pure. Then the other – low and rough.

  He paused for effect.

  ‘Why is the low sound so grainy?’

  Nobody answered.

  ‘It is grainy because sound is a vibration – a series of peaks and troughs, a sequence of consecutive interruptions of sound and silence. In the high-pitched sound, they come so quickly one after the other that we do not notice them. In the low sound the gaps between the sound and the silence are much greater, so there is a roughness. It is sound, then silence. Sound, then silence. An alternation.’

  He paused again.

  ‘Everything is a vibration. A coming then a going. Light is vibration – waves and troughs. So-called solid matter is a vibration – of electromagnetic impulses. The beating of your heart is a vibration; the coming and going of your breath is a vibration. The cycles of a woman are a vibration.’

  Vanya’s body language shifted. She crossed her arms and her facial expression, instead of being simply drunken, became defensive and alert.

  ‘So what?’ said Pattern.

  ‘This means something. It is why babies love to play peek-a-boo. It is why the sun rises and falls – yet another vibration. We are governed by these comings and these goings, these presences and absences. Do you see? They are the secret pattern behind everything. We fight against evil, we fight against the dark, we fight against death, against nothingness. But they are all necessary, so that their opposites can manifest.’

  There was a general air of puzzlement, but Henry was unfazed. He puffed at his pipe with a contented air. He was clearly in his element.

  ‘These vibrations, these rhythms, are so ingrained in our everyday consciousness that they have become invisible to us. We do not see that we ourselves are vibrations – vibrations of the very earth, which breathes out its newborn and breathes in its dead. Rhythm is at the heart of everything. That is why we dance to it.’

  ‘For example: men and women. Male and female are not poles apart. They are poles of the same thing. There is common ground between poles. The circuit runs from positive to negative.’

  Vanya stood up unsteadily. She had helped herself to a half-full bottle of wine from the trestle table, and had repeatedly topped up her cup.

  ‘So which is the negative pole?’ she demanded.

  ‘I don’t mean it in that sense, not the popular, pejorative sense of the word “negative”. More in the scientific sense. As with the poles of an electrical current.’

  ‘The negative pole.’

  ‘Between women’s legs is the space that gives birth to everything and from which everything comes. Out of nothing comes everything.’

  ‘You’re saying women are nothing?’

  ‘I am all in favour of nothing.’ He walked a few steps across to where Vanya was sitting. ‘Do you think nothing comes from nothing?’

  ‘Of course.’

  ‘Then how to explain this?’

  And at that he reached behind her head and a pigeon flew out of his hand as if from nowhere.

  There was laughter, and the argument was defused. Vanya, helpless now, sat down again, joining in the chorus of approval.

  The wine, which I had been knocking back with almost as much alacrity as Vanya, was beginning to make me drowsy and inattentive.

  ‘But what do you believe in, Henry?’ said Pattern edgily.

  ‘Uncertainty. Transience. The urgency of the present. The intractability of death. The secret self that guides us.’

  Henry had put away his pipe and was now smoking a cigarette. He blew a perfect smoke ring, then another one that floated through the first one.

  ‘This is what we are. Dissolving smoke.’

  Everyone applauded. Henry smiled.

  ‘Now, we need to finish up. I don’t want Mr Pritchard from the council accusing me of infringing some by-law or other.’

  He looked around for Pritchard, but he was nowhere to be seen.

  ‘Thank you for listening.’

  It was clear his talk was over. There was a smattering of slightly puzzled applause. Strawberry, however, was nodding vigorously, cheering and clapping.

  Ash got up from where she was sitting and came and crouched next to me. She smelled of hairspray.

  ‘Your uncle’s a nutter,’ she said.

  ‘Where did you go?’

  ‘When?’

  ‘Just before the talk started.’

  ‘ I forgot my bag. I thought I might have left it back in the woods. Yeah. It was there.’ She swung her small cloth bag lightly on her arm and patted it.

  Henry now appeared to be debating a point with Pattern. I became fiercely aware of the closeness of Ash’s body. There was a fire in it as radiant and as real as the one that now lay smouldering by the side of the blackboard.

  ‘They will get rid of him, you know.’

  I took another swig of my wine and went to fill up my plate with vegetable curry. I had grown used to spicy food, even begun to enjoy it. The pot on the table was empty, but I was sure I had seen some more left on the stovetop. When I got into the galley, Pritchard was there. He looked up amiably when I entered.

  ‘Mr Templeton is quite a character,’ he said, scribbling on his pad. I noticed he had a tape measure. He started measuring the boat’s dimensions from floor to roof.

  ‘Do you have permission to do that?’

  ‘What?’ said Pritchard, idly checking the tape at floor level.

  I repeated the question more assertively.

  ‘Do I need it?’

  ‘Let’s find out.’

  I headed out to Henry, who was drinking a glass of water and talking to Vanya. I beckoned urgently to him. He nodded, apologized to Vanya and walked directly across to the boat and Pritchard, who was still happily measuring and scribbling.

  ‘What are you doing?’ Henry demanded.

  ‘I’m measuring your boat to see if it conforms with—’

  ‘I invite you on to my boat in a spirit of hospitality. You offer no fee or donation. Your intentions are far from congenial. Yet still I welcome you. You turned up with no warning, and now you’ve started . . . measuring things. What is it with you people and your measurements? Are you afraid you’re going to run out of inches?’

  ‘I’m sure you’d want to be seen to be obeying the law, Mr Templeton, if that means—’

  Before he could do any more, Henry snatched the tape out of his hands and hurled it through the open window into the river.

  ‘That tape measure belongs to the council,’ said Pritchard. He appeared genuinely shocked.

  ‘This land, and this boat, belongs to me. And I’d thank you to get off it. Right now.’

  Pritchard looked nervous. Henry didn’t often lose his temper, but when he did, he managed to generate an intimidating amount of heat. Holding Henry’s gaze for less than a second, Pritchard turned and made for the exit.

  ‘We’ll be in touch, Mr Templeton.’

  ‘Dr Templeton. I’ll look forward to it immensely.’

  Henry returned to his place next to the blackboard. Everyone was now standing in a clump by the guttering fire as Pritchard marched out, muttering, still apparently outraged by the loss of his tape measure.

  ‘I think we’re finished for tonight. We need to clean up and close down. If you could put the cushions and blankets into a pile, that would be most helpful. Thank you all for coming.’

  He threw a glass of water on the fire. It hissed, gave a gasp, and died.

  Twenty-two

  After I had spent almost a month at the houseboat, I phoned my father again. However, once again I found that I had l
ittle to say to him, or vice versa. I told him that I was doing well with my studies and enjoying my stay. I was careful not to go into too much detail about the closeness I was experiencing with Henry – I had at least that much residual sensitivity. I just informed Ray that Henry was keeping me safe, looking after me tolerably and not forcing me to inject myself with heroin or ingest peyote. This seemed to satisfy Ray, at least enough to prevent him from driving down to check on me. There was a part of me that wanted to see him, but a larger part wanted to keep my new, bewitched, fire-and-water world private and inviolate. I hoped, in the meantime, that he had stopped dusting my bedroom.

  The date of the hearing was closing in. Henry remained convinced that the terms of his lease had not been breached. Even with Toshack’s spies at the boat lecture, nothing unseemly had taken place. There had been no drugs or drunkenness. There might be suspicions, but there was nothing they could bring into county court in the way of hard evidence. As for the family to whom Henry had allegedly exposed himself, nothing more had been heard from them.

  The weather remained uncompromisingly hot and dry, with only the occasional welcome thunderstorm to relieve the turbid, heavy stillness of the air. The days had taken on a rhythm. In the morning I sunbathed and revised while Henry worked on his book and his court case. In the afternoons, I would often meet up with Ash. Sometimes we would go to her room at the rectory, to clandestinely kiss and explore one another’s bodies with the thin skin of our fingertips while Wesley worked at his desk, no more than yards away, on the far side of a floor and a wall. Most of the time I struggled with the prophylactic of an outer layer of clothing, but several times Ash allowed me to trace the outline of her nipples under her still-buttoned blouse.

  On one occasion, I took courage and ventured to put my moist, trembling hand down the front of her pants. I was astonished when I momentarily met no resistance. Then she gently prised my hand away, and planted a kiss on my mouth. The kiss was angry and apologetic and yet at the same time held a note of encouragement, even abandonment.

  Outside of that enchanted room, that temple where our bodies prayed to one another for release, we would walk, or picnic, or cycle. The days seemed very long, and yet we did not feel the weight of them. There was a sense that any movement was half imagined, illusory, as if lightly sketched in a flick-book. Only the awareness that I would be returning to London in a few weeks pressed down on me.

 
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