The last summer of the w.., p.23
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.23

           Tim Lott
 
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  My main worry, as the summer drew on, was Strawberry. Her health had continued to be poor, if anything getting worse. She was still functional, but she seemed perpetually tired, rarely leaving the cabin now, except when Troy occasionally came to pick her up and drive her into Bristol to do some shopping for raw food and dietary products.

  One morning I decided to pay her a visit. Strawberry and I had become close, but in a different way from my feelings for Ash. Although she was older than me – she told me she was twenty-three – there was a part of her that seemed for ever a child. She seemed to have no sex life whatsoever.

  She would giggle like a child, she craved sweets (‘That’s the worst thing about this diet, and this country – no M&Ms’), she made daisy chains and read The Little Prince over and over again as if it was the Oracle. It was as if the very act of starving herself was an attempt to keep herself a child. Yet there was something so old and tired about her at the same time, as if she had contracted some reverse version of progeria. Her body was young, as were parts of her mind, but the soul that peered out from her eyes sometimes seemed weary and shrivelled.

  I supposed it was simply damage. She was crippled inside, badly – that was obvious even to me. Sometimes I would hear her crying when I walked near the cabin. She would wring her hands as if trying to rub them clean, like Lady Macbeth. She was developing a tic on the side of her mouth, and her hair had started to look dry and distressed. There were cracks and chaps on her lips.

  Henry was not insouciant about her condition – in fact he was profoundly concerned – but he was also, to my mind, wilfully blind. ‘A fool who persists in his folly will become wise’ remained his mantra, his point of principle. He insisted that he had no power to force her to abandon her diet. He had tried to do so on a number of occasions, without success. I felt sure I could detect a tinge of paternal pride at her wilfulness, even as it seemingly wrecked her from within.

  I set off for the cabin in my cut-off jeans, but no pants, socks or T-shirt. My skin was tanned now, my hair sun-streaked, my body lean and defined. Physically, I had never felt better. I didn’t even bother with my sandals as I made my way along the riverbank and then turned towards the clearing where the cabin was.

  As I made the clearing, I heard a scream. It was the most awful sound, worse than anything I had heard in a horror movie. Like the fox I had heard in the night that first week, only darker, more desperate, louder.

  I wanted to turn and run. Crazily, I decided that Strawberry was being murdered. I forced myself to stand firm.

  The scream stopped very suddenly. I waited, rooted to the spot, outside the cabin. I heard a weird thudding noise, a shuffling and a faint moaning. I wondered for a moment if she might be having sex, but then dismissed the idea. Without thinking any more, I pushed the door open.

  Strawberry was alone, spread out on the floor, face up, eyes wide open. Flecks of foam speckled her lips. Her arms and legs were twitching compulsively, and her head was banging against the floor, as if she was frustrated and having a tantrum. Her back was arched. The heel of one foot struck repeatedly against the wall in a dull tattoo. There was a broken glass of what looked like carrot juice to one side of her head. She was within an inch or two of the shards of glass.

  Immediately, I found myself back in my kitchen with my mother – terrified, impotent. But there were no telephones here, no neighbours. Then, to my own surprise, the feeling passed and I became very calm and focused. I called her name to see if she could hear me – but, as I expected, there was no reply.

  I swiftly cleared up the scraps of glass with my fingertips. I had worked out that she was fitting, so I carefully found a pillow and pushed it under her head. Her blank eyes stared at me, nothing behind them. Her mouth worked and worked, grinding. I saw a flannel by the sink, grabbed it, rolled it up and forced it between her teeth, to stop her swallowing her tongue.

  I sat still, hoping that the fit would pass, by no means certain that it would. After maybe thirty more seconds, a light returned to her eyes – she seemed to work at focusing. A few more seconds and she looked up at me and tried to smile, but the cloth in her mouth made it impossible. I wasn’t sure she recognized me. Her limbs had become still. She relaxed her back. She looked exhausted, but beautiful. I reached over and took the flannel gently from her mouth. It was coated with sputum and a little blood.

  She pulled herself up slowly on to one elbow, and shook her head from side to side, as if this might enable thought to return. She seemed unconcerned, dazed. She noticed the spilled orange liquid on the floor. A trail of the same liquid was trickling down the side of her mouth. She wiped it with her sleeve.

  ‘Did you do that?’ she said, pointing to the remnants of glass, now on the draining board.

  ‘No.’

  ‘Who did?’

  ‘I imagine you did.’

  ‘No,’ she said. ‘No.’

  She staggered to her feet and nearly fell over. I caught her. She was so light. I felt her hand around my wrist. She looked at me again, as if seeing me for the first time.

  ‘I’m so tired.’

  I said nothing. She looked suddenly puzzled and angry.

  ‘What are you doing here? How long have you been here?’

  ‘A few minutes. You were having some kind of fit.’

  Strawberry corrugated her brow. The anger fled her face.

  ‘You were lying on the floor. Twitching. Eyes open. I propped your head up. That’s why you had a flannel in your mouth.’

  ‘I had a flannel in my mouth?’

  She looked incredulous.

  ‘To stop you swallowing your tongue.’

  Her face cleared. Her features drooped. She sat heavily down.

  ‘Oh. Grand mal. Shit.’

  I sat down on the cushion opposite her. ‘What?’

  ‘Grand mal. I thought the purification process would get rid of it. Haven’t had an attack for more than nine months. Gave up on the medication, and the diet kept it at bay. But it’s come back. Fuck.’

  She looked disgusted.

  ‘“Grand mal”?’

  She reached for some kitchen towel and started clearing up the carrot juice. Without looking at me, she spoke again.

  ‘I’ve had it since I was a kid. Epilepsy. Only lasts maybe a minute. I can’t remember anything about it.’

  She looked at me now. Momentarily, there was a pleading in her face, but it gave way to a vague sadness.

  ‘You helped me. Thank you. But I’d have been OK. I just black out.’

  I was feeling very shaken.

  ‘You screamed. A really . . . I’ve never heard anything like it. Like you were being possessed.’

  ‘Did I? Yes, I’ve heard that that happens. I can’t remember.’

  ‘It sounded like you were very scared.’

  ‘Perhaps I was. I don’t know. But I’m OK now.’

  She stepped uncertainly over to me and gave me a kiss on the cheek.

  ‘Thank you for looking after me, Adam. It was sweet of you. Would you like some oatmeal biscuits? No sugar in them, I’m afraid. But I made them myself.’

  ‘No thank you.’

  Her eyelids flickered.

  ‘I’m so tired. I’m always so tired.’

  ‘But are you OK?’

  ‘Oh yes,’ she said sleepily. ‘I’m fine. Just need to rest.’

  ‘Don’t you think . . .?’

  I hesitated. I didn’t want to upset her. But she looked like she was already drifting off.

  ‘Don’t you think your diet might have sparked off the attack?’

  She shook her head woozily and lay down on the futon.

  ‘Helping. Used to get them every six months. Now nine months since . . . Suzuki wrote to me. He told me to carry on. Just side-effects.’

  Her head lolled to one side. She was asleep.

  I headed back to the Ho Koji to tell Henry what had happened. I found him in his office, typing. When I told him the news, he banged his forehead with the
heel of his palm.

  ‘Jesus! Susan. What the hell is wrong with her? What is she putting herself through?’

  ‘She says it was nothing to do with her diet.’

  ‘You believe that?’

  ‘How would I know?’

  ‘Is she OK now?’

  ‘She’s fallen asleep.’

  He began slowly rolling a cigarette. His hands trembled slightly. He dropped the paper, and had to pick up the scraps of tobacco and reroll.

  ‘It’s true that she had occasional bouts of epilepsy before she embarked on this fad. But it can be brought on by stress, both mental and physical. The diet is likely to be a factor.’

  ‘Have you asked her when the diet’s going to finish?’

  ‘I don’t think it is going to finish. She sees it as a permanent choice. Although, hopefully, it will be moderated at some point. Perhaps when she has disappeared altogether.’

  I hesitated.

  ‘How much danger is she putting herself in?’

  Henry finished rolling the cigarette, successfully this time. He lit it and inhaled. The smoke emerged in bitty, nervous exhalations, manifesting as intermittent blue clouds.

  ‘She’s been through fads before. Plenty of them. She always comes to her senses in the end. She will again.’

  ‘What if she doesn’t come to her senses?’

  He spat out some tobacco.

  ‘Well – what do you want me to do about it? I can’t tell her what to do. She’s very, very stubborn.’

  ‘She needs to see a doctor.’

  ‘Try telling her that and see how far it gets you.’

  ‘She’s tired all the time. She looks like she’s about to get heart failure or something.’

  ‘Come on, Adam. Don’t exaggerate.’

  ‘I couldn’t bear for it to happen again.’

  Henry looked up sharply.

  ‘It’s not going to happen “again”, Adam. She’ll be OK. She’s not entirely crazy. I’ve written to Suzuki, explaining the situation. He’s the only person she’ll listen to. I’m sure if he understands that her health is in jeopardy, he will write a note telling her to ease up. I’ve met him on more than one occasion. He’s misguided, but he’s not a monster.’

  ‘He’s already written to her. He says she’s doing fine.’

  Henry pulled on the rollie, but it had gone out. He threw it at the bin, with more force than was necessary, and missed. He sucked on his teeth.

  ‘She didn’t tell me.’

  ‘Why should she tell you? You’re only going to try and talk her out of it.’

  ‘Well, I guess that’s my point entirely.’

  ‘So you’re washing your hands of this.’

  ‘I’m not doing anything of the sort. But I’m not God.’

  ‘How much longer do you think she can survive in that state?’

  ‘You’re not a doctor. Neither am I.’

  ‘That’s what she needs to see. A doctor. Soon.’

  ‘That’s not for us to decide.’

  I looked at Henry – now searching for stub that had missed the bin – and he suddenly angered me. Despite his obvious concern for Strawberry, there was within him a quiet certainty, a deep acceptance of the inevitability of wrongness, that was at the same time elevated and vaguely inhuman.

  I shrugged. ‘Well – I guess that’s up to you.’

  ‘It’s up to Susan.’

  He found the stub, deposited it in the bin and then started to type again, signalling that the topic of Strawberry had been exhausted. I felt at a loss as to how to get through to him – how to get through to either of them.

  ‘How’s the book going?’ I muttered.

  ‘Good. Very good. I’ve nearly completed a second draft. Then it will be ready for submission. Five years’ work. I’m very pleased with it. Yes. I’m delighted.’

  He didn’t look up from the Remington.

  ‘Are you not going to go and see Strawberry?’

  He hit a few more keys, then stopped.

  ‘Hmmm? Oh yes. Of course. But you said she was OK, right?’

  ‘For the short term.’

  ‘No, you’re right. I should go and see her.’

  He stood up.

  I made my way out of the boat and stared blankly in the direction of Strawberry’s cabin. Henry followed, then started taking leisurely, casual paces towards the clearing.

  It was then, as I watched the infuriating slowness of his stride, that I decided what I had to do next.

  It took me fifteen minutes to pedal into town. When I reached the rectory, I banged on the door furiously with my fist. I realized I was in a panic, and started to take deep breaths to try and calm myself down.

  Wesley Toshack opened the door. He almost entirely filled the doorway. I still hadn’t quite got used to how huge he was. His black hair was thick and crinkly and oiled back. His jaw was as angular as a chair-back. I was still breathless from the bike ride, despite my attempts at deep breathing.

  ‘Adam.’

  ‘Reverend.’

  ‘Call me Wesley. Please. I assume you’re here to see Ash.’

  I wasn’t sure why I was there, or what it was I had to do. I just knew I had to come here.

  ‘Is she here?’

  ‘She’ll be back in fifteen minutes or so. She’s popped down to the shops.’

  He looked at me shrewdly for a long moment. ‘Are you all right, Adam?’

  I made no reply. He gestured for me to come in. I hesitated, then stepped across the threshold. The room, with its old, dark wood, rugs and religious icons, had the air of a confessional booth.

  Toshack made me a cup of coffee and brought it to me with a sugared biscuit. We sat and made small-talk – how my revision was going, how things were on the boat, what my life was like when I was in London. He was clearly practised in listening, and asking questions that might open you up. It made me faintly uneasy, but I was also aware that at some level I welcomed it.

  After twenty-five minutes, Ash had still not returned. Wesley tapped his finger three times on the wooden arm of the chair he was sitting in, regarding me curiously.

  ‘There’s something wrong, Adam, isn’t there?’

  I felt a stab of loyalty towards Henry, who, I knew, would be mortified to know that I was talking to Toshack like this. But then I thought of Strawberry. Her blank, staring eyes. Her tiny body shaking as if caught in a cruel wind.

  ‘Perhaps we should wait until Ash comes back.’

  ‘You can never tell with Ash. When she says fifteen minutes, she can mean anything up to an hour. But you probably know that already. So what’s the matter, Adam?’

  I sensed that some invisible clerical vestment was being slipped on. His body language opened, inviting me to open up in return. He leaned forward slightly.

  ‘It’s hard to talk about.’

  ‘Your uncle told me about the death of your mother. Tragic, tragic. Is it that which is troubling you?’

  I shook my head.

  ‘No. Well. Yes. That’s always there. Always with me. But no.’

  Still I held back. But Toshack held me steadily in his gaze, which was like a tractor beam. It seemed to leave me no place to hide. He said nothing, but eventually the silence became unbearable.

  ‘It’s Strawberry.’

  ‘Strawberry?’

  ‘Yes. The girl you talked about. Skinny.’

  ‘Yes,’ said Toshack. ‘I remember her. She didn’t look well. Skin and bone. Has she some kind of disease?’

  ‘Not exactly. She’s just very determined.’

  I paused. Then the words tumbled out, the words that I knew marked the early gradient of a hazardous slope.

  ‘I went to her cabin today. She was having some sort of fit. She’s recovered, but I think she’s in a serious condition.’

  Ash walked into the room, carrying two shopping bags.

  ‘Hello, Dad. Adam! What are you doing here?’

  She kept moving, depositing the shopping bags in the kitch
en.

  ‘There’s a bit of trouble down at the boat,’ said Toshack. ‘Nothing to worry about. Nothing we can’t sort out. What kind of fit, Adam?’

  ‘What’s happened?’ said Ash, sitting down beside me on the sofa.

  ‘She said it was grand mal. Some form of epilepsy.’ I told them about the scene that had confronted me.

  Ash put her hand on mine. It was comforting.

  ‘You must have been terrified.’

  ‘I think she may be very ill. Dangerously so. And she won’t go to a doctor.’

  ‘What does Henry have to say about this?’

  ‘He doesn’t know how to help.’

  Ash and Toshack exchanged glances.

  ‘We have to do something. Don’t we, Dad? We have to?’

  ‘As Henry says – what can we do?’ I said.

  ‘I’ll think of something,’ said Toshack. ‘But I need to pray first.’ He stood up. ‘Is there anything else you can tell us about this girl, Adam?’

  ‘Nothing that matters.’

  ‘Are you sure?’

  I felt Ash pressing my hand. At the same time, words fizzed on my tongue, demanding utterance. Before I allowed myself to think any more, I blurted them out.

  ‘She’s Henry’s daughter.’

  Rationalizations crowded my mind, trying to obliterate the sense of betrayal I immediately felt, like heartburn. Vanya had known, and therefore probably all her group knew – Pattern, Troy, probably Moo. What difference did it make anyway?

  ‘Henry’s daughter,’ repeated Ash slowly, as if tasting the information, feeling it on her lips for flavours.

  ‘Does it matter?’

  Toshack’s face was dark, but there was another look there, beneath the darkness. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it worried me. Wesley was again exchanging glances with Ash. It was as if they had suddenly excavated a deep common purpose.

  ‘Come and see us tomorrow, will you, Adam? Once I’ve had a chance to sleep on it. We’ll work something out. Come at around noon.’

  I agreed. Wesley shook my hand, and Ash walked me back to my bike.

  I wanted to tell Henry of the meeting, but my shame choked me. When I returned to the houseboat, I went to my room and stayed there, without speaking a word, until the light died in the sky.

 
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