The last summer of the w.., p.24
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.24

           Tim Lott
 
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  Twenty-four

  The next day, as I had promised, I made my way back to the rectory. The benefit of a night’s sleep had reassured me somewhat. Yes, Strawberry was Henry’s daughter. But she was twenty-three years old. She was not Henry’s responsibility.

  The heat shimmer that hovered over the tarmac as I cycled towards Lexham gave the ride an eerie, premonitory quality. It was eighty-seven degrees. We had seen no rain for a fortnight. Forest fires had caught on the Somerset Levels, even coming close to Bath on occasion. I thought of the Long Hot Summer of 1914, before everything incandesced. How forces built up and then, when some mysterious tipping point was reached, released themselves uncontrollably.

  I arrived at midday. Wesley and Ash were outside waiting for me. To my consternation, there was also a policeman, standing by an Austin Allegro squad car. It was the same tall, skinny policeman with bum fluff under his nose who had cautioned Henry for ‘exposing’ himself on the river. The passenger door was open.

  Wesley was wearing his clerical garb. Ash was in an innocent cotton dress, white punctuated with tiny blue flowers. Wesley held a large black bible in his right hand. He spoke in a low, even tone that somehow implied absolute determination.

  ‘I’m sorry, Adam. You had something of a wasted journey. We’re going to head down to the boat. We had no way of letting you know.’

  ‘We couldn’t turn up without you. It didn’t seem right,’ said Ash.

  I stared at them both, uncomprehending. I gestured towards the policeman.

  ‘What’s he doing here?’

  ‘Constable Urquhart is concerned there may be issues of abuse and neglect,’ said Toshack. ‘And it may be that, if we cannot talk sense into the girl – let me speak plainly – we will have to compel her to seek treatment.’

  ‘Abuse and neglect by who? She’s a twenty-three-year-old woman.’

  Ash and Toshack exchanged glances.

  ‘We have information that she is only seventeen years old, and therefore technically a minor. As such, she is in her father’s care.’

  I laughed.

  ‘That’s ridiculous. She told me herself that she was twenty-three.’

  ‘And you find her testimony entirely reliable, do you, sir?’ said the policeman. The way he pronounced the word ‘sir’ made it clear that he was entirely without respect for my viewpoint. He was Toshack’s man all right.

  ‘But how would you know different?’

  A flicker crossed Ash’s face. She would not meet my eye.

  ‘We have access to . . . certain documents, which make the facts . . . unassailable,’ said Toshak.

  ‘What documents?’

  I looked at Ash again. Still she was looking at the ground.

  ‘Have you been through Strawberry’s things?’ I said, grabbing her by the shoulder. She shrugged me off and glared at me defiantly.

  ‘It doesn’t really matter where the documents come from. They show that her eighteenth birthday is still a matter of months away,’ said Toshack.

  Something clicked.

  ‘Ash,’ I persisted, ‘where did you go when you disappeared at the lecture on the boat?’

  Her gaze didn’t falter.

  ‘You must see that this is for Strawberry’s own good.’

  Puzzle pieces were falling into imaginary spaces.

  ‘Did you go to Strawberry’s cabin?’

  ‘Listen, Adam,’ said Wesley. ‘Let me speak plainly. Anything Ashley did, she did under instruction from me. And it’s as well she did.’

  ‘I found her passport,’ said Ash, very quietly, still looking at the ground. ‘Her name really is Strawberry Shortcake.’

  The policeman laughed.

  ‘But her date of birth shows she still three months shy of being a legal adult,’ said Toshack.

  I could feel the sting of acid in my throat.

  ‘You can’t just turn up at the boat without Henry’s permission and drag Strawberry out of there forcibly. She still has a right to her own choices.’

  Ash looked at me sadly, but with a tinge now of defiance, of disdain even.

  ‘Is this something Henry has told you?’

  ‘He does say that, yes. But I agree with him.’

  ‘Even if she is still technically a child?’

  I felt my confidence evaporating under the weight of the sunlight.

  The policeman looked at his watch.

  ‘Shall we get to it?’

  ‘What are you going to do? Handcuff her and drag her screaming out of the cabin?’

  ‘It may not come to that,’ said Toshack.

  ‘”May not”? You mean it could come to that.’

  Now another disturbing thought occurred to me.

  ‘Will this have any effect on the outcome of Henry’s court hearing?’

  ‘I don’t suppose it will help his case.’

  ‘Shit. Oh, shit.’

  ‘You’re being melodramatic, Adam. We’re just going to talk to her. Having a policeman with us – well, it’s for show as much as anything else. I think probably Strawberry hasn’t had to deal with too much authority in her life. Perhaps Constable Urquhart will provide her with the shock she needs to start to see sense.’

  ‘And if she doesn’t “see sense”, what then?’

  Instead of answering, Toshack began to intone: “‘Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”’

  He exchanged glances with Ash.

  ‘The harvest must be gathered in,’ said Ash.

  They were both looking at me. There was nothing in their eyes but will and judgement and determination and triumph.

  There was no compassion at all.

  ‘You’re a spy. A Judas,’ I said bitterly to Ash.

  ‘I’m simply someone who knows the difference between right and wrong,’ she replied.

  My fury overwhelmed me. She had been playing me. All that had passed between us had been artifice, the unfolding of a larger scheme. Now she was being pious, unbearable.

  ‘But not, apparently, someone who knows the difference between her arse and her fanny,’ I spat back.

  ‘Don’t use that filthy language here,’ barked Toshack, rising to his full height. ‘Don’t you dare speak about Ashley in that manner.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘Using such vulgar metaphors is revolting.’

  Ash shot me a pleading look.

  ‘They’re not fucking metaphors.’

  ‘Whatever they are, shut up about it.’

  ‘They are literal descriptions of your daughter’s behaviour.’

  I could hear the echo of Henry in my own voice – only it came out pompous and green rather than easily auth oritative.

  ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

  ‘Do you want to know? Because I understand you’re very keen on the truth.’

  A shadow passed across Toshack’s eyes, a faint glimmer of dawning understanding.

  ‘You had better not say another word. You are treading on thin ice, Sonny Jim.’

  ‘Then let me speak plainly. As you are so fond of doing. Your daughter is a catamite. An enthusiastic one.’

  ‘Don’t be absurd. You’re hysterical.’

  ‘What’s a catamite?’ said Urquhart.

  ‘A catamite is the passive partner in anal intercourse,’ I answered.

  ‘Adam . . .’ Ash was looking at me desperately now.

  ‘It’s a lie,’ said Toshack. ‘A filthy, revolting lie.’

  But the confidence had left his voice. He sat down on the edge of the police car’s passenger seat, knitting and furrowing his brow.

  ‘Anal . . .?’ said Urquhart. ‘Cata-what?’

  I felt myself in the final act of some weird cross between a Joe Orton farce and a 1960s horror film. Toshack was sitting absolutely still. His eyes swivelled slowly towards Ashley.

  ‘Catamite,’ I said, looking at Urquhart’s plain, stupid face. ‘There’s probably a dictionary inside the re
ctory. I suggest you go and look it up. Permitted as part of God’s perfect plan, apparently. So long as it’s a daughter that’s being taken up the aisle and not a member of the same sex.’

  ‘Shut your filthy mouth!’

  ‘If you don’t believe me, go and look under her bedside table.’

  Toshack stood up. He raised his hand to strike me. I didn’t move. His hand drew back at the last moment, a half-inch from my face. I carried on looking at him steadily.

  Urquhart did nothing to reprimand him. He walked round to the driver’s side of the car.

  ‘Ashley,’ said Toshack, still looking at me. ‘If I go and look under your bedside table, what will I find?’

  Ashley hesitated for a fatal split second.

  ‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’

  Toshack grabbed Ashley by the shoulders.

  ‘Look at me. And tell me the truth.’

  She said nothing.

  ‘Well?’ said Toshack again, waiting for a confirmation of her denial.

  Still she said nothing. Now he looked at her desperately. She stared back, her face a pool of tenderness and regret.

  ‘I love you, Dad.’

  ‘Ashley, if you tell me there’s nothing for me to find, then I will believe you. Just promise, in the Lord’s name, and the name of your mother, that you’re telling me the truth.’

  Her mouth worked as if chewing on unsayable words, but she could not spit any out.

  Toshack’s shoulders fell. There was a heavy silence.

  ‘We need to go,’ said Urquhart.

  He climbed into the driving seat of the car. Toshack took one long, final look at me, then climbed into the passenger seat and slammed the door shut. Ash opened the door at the back.

  ‘No,’ said Toshack through the open window, with a deadly restraint.

  She looked wildly around.

  ‘But Dad, I—’

  ‘You will stay here, Ashley. You will not leave the house. You will not speak to anyone. You will not try and contact anyone. We will talk when I return. You will have had plenty of time to clear up any evidence of your transgressions by then. But you will not be able to hide them from God.’

  ‘Dad! I have lived as . . . I have tried to live as . . . you taught me . . . and—’

  Toshack cut her off. ‘Shame on you. For your mother’s sake, shame on you.’

  The expression on Ash’s face was no longer a crucible, but a mirror turned inwards that showed, simply, fear. With a final, unreadable glance at me, she turned and walked heavily back towards the rectory.

  I ran for my bike. The policeman called after me, but I ignored him and began pedalling furiously. I pedalled faster than I had ever pedalled before.

  There was a short-cut across the fields, if you could negotiate the dry ruts and ditches without coming out of the saddle. I bumped and rocked, panting. I had no idea what I was going to do when I got there, or if I had any chance of getting there before Toshack and Urquhart. There were roadworks on the single-lane route from the town to the track that led to the forest and the boat, so it was possible that they would be delayed. But I had to warn Henry, even if it was too late to do anything about it.

  I was there in twenty minutes. I had taken my shirt off but I wore an undercoat of sweat. My hair was ragged and drenched. As I pulled up beside the boat, I could see, maybe five hundred yards away, the police car approaching down the dirt track. I had, at least, got there first.

  I started calling desperately for Henry. There was no answer. I had no time to check inside the boat. I began to run towards the cabin. I imagined I had been spotted, because suddenly the siren sounded. I ran harder, still exhausted from the bike journey. I could hear a theatrical squeal of tyres as the police car pulled up next to the field gate.

  As I ran towards the cabin, I called Strawberry’s name. I didn’t know if I wanted her to run or to stay. I just knew I didn’t want to be guilty again.

  Toshack and Urquhart could only be seconds behind me now. I increased my pace. The cabin came into view. As I came closer, the front door opened.

  It was not Strawberry that walked out, but Henry. Henry, holding Strawberry’s delicate frame cradled in his arms. His skin was floury, despite his tan. He looked up at me but didn’t seem to see me.

  ‘Henry! What’s wrong with her?’

  He shook his head.

  ‘I can’t wake her up.’

  He carried on walking towards me, not increasing his pace.

  Then Urquhart and Toshack appeared, striding purposefully through the edge of the wood and into the clearing. Toshack was still holding his bible. Seeing Henry, both broke into a run.

  ‘Lay her down,’ commanded Toshack.

  Henry looked up and shot Toshack a look of wild warning such as I had never seen. It blazed through the screen of pain behind his eyes.

  ‘Get away from me,’ he said simply.

  Toshak took a step backwards and fell silent.

  Urquhart looked out of his depth. But then, very softly, he said: ‘Please put her down, sir. Perhaps I can help her. Please, sir. Please.’ He indicated a soft spot with thick grass and fallen leaves. ‘There.’

  Henry threw one more burning gaze at Toshack, then he sighed and the muscles in his face, contorted in agony, seemed to relax.

  Gently Henry laid her among the leaves of the undergrowth. Her face had a certain look, a particular, terrible stillness. I recognized it. I had seen it on my own mother’s face.

  Unclouded.

  Pure.

  Urquhart leaned over and gave her artificial respiration. Doing it expertly, nothing like the muddled attempt I had made on my mother.

  He cleared her mouth of any possible blockages and moved the lower jaw forward and upward. Then he placed his mouth on hers and pressed, creating a leak-proof seal, and clamped her nostrils closed with his hand.

  ‘No,’ said Henry simply.

  Urquhart was red-faced, perspiring.

  After a minute there was no response from Strawberry.

  Another minute, nothing.

  Urquhart breathed into her, pulled away when her chest expanded, maybe twelve times per minute. Every time he reared back, he put his ear to her mouth to see if he could hear her exhaling. At the same time he gave her regular chest compressions, fast, maybe one every second.

  ‘We need to get her to hospital. Now,’ he said.

  Henry picked her up, still a dead weight, and we began to hurry back to the car. When we arrived, Henry laid Strawberry in the back and joined her there, her head on his lap. Toshack went to get in the front.

  Then I saw Strawberry’s eyelids flicker and her chest begin to rise and fall. But still her eyes did not open.

  Toshack hesitated, then meekly stepped to one side and let me in instead.

  The car started. Just before it pulled way, Toshack leaned down to the open window where Strawberry was cradled in Henry’s arms.

  ‘You did this,’ he said. ‘It was you, Templeton.’

  Henry didn’t look up from Strawberry’s face.

  ‘I’m sorry I robbed you of the chance to be a saviour, Wesley.’

  The engine roared and we drove away. I looked back and saw Toshack straighten up and begin to walk to back in the direction of the town, alone.

  Twenty-five

  Strawberry remained in a coma for two days at Bristol Royal Infirmary. Her eyes flickered open in the early afternoon of the third day. Henry and I were waiting by her bedside.

  Her first words were woozy, but distinct.

  ‘What the fuck?’

  ‘Susan,’ said Henry. ‘Susan. You’re with us.’

  She closed her eyes again, and fell asleep.

  Then the nurse moved us out of the room and called a doctor to conduct an examination. We waited for fifteen minutes until the doctor, a tired and tiresome-looking man in late middle age with a lofty Roman nose, a spotless white coat and an air of casual superiority, finally entered the waiting room.

  ‘You’re the father?
Is that correct?’

  ‘I am,’ said Henry.

  ‘And you are?’ He gazed at me from the summit of his formidable nose.

  ‘I’m her . . .’ It hadn’t occurred to me to think of Strawberry in these terms before.

  ‘I’m her cousin.’

  He looked back at Henry, an expression of faint disapproval passing across his face like indigestion.

  ‘This girl has been sorely neglected. I think you know that I have had to pass the information on to the relevant authorities.’

  Henry stood up. He towered some several inches above the doctor.

  ‘The “authorities” know all about it. The “authorities” have it in hand. Doubtless I will be hung, drawn and quartered for allowing her to make her own decisions. So be it. I am a wicked man. Let’s all agree on that, shall we? Now. Can you tell me – without the pious lectures – is she going to be all right?’

  ‘I don’t think there’s any need for that kind of tone, Mr Templeton.’

  ‘Doctor Templeton. And I don’t give a tuppeny damn whether you think there’s any need for that kind of tone or not. I want to know about the state of my daughter’s health. That is your job. So please, could we waste no more of our time? Thank you.’

  The doctor’s face took on a fresh layer of pomposity, but it was clear he was not used to such dressings-down. He took refuge in inspecting his notes. Without looking up he started speaking.

  ‘Your daughter should make a full recovery. If she is looked after properly, and if she abandons this ridiculous so-called “health” regime that she is clearly addicted to . . .’ He paused to let the weight of these words sink in. ‘If she is looked after properly, there is no reason she shouldn’t return to full health.’

  ‘Thank you, doctor.’

  ‘I have to tell you that I believe that the neglect this girl suffered—’

  ‘Thank you, doctor. That will be all.’

  The doctor paused, as if deciding whether to press home the point. Then he said, ‘What kind of doctor are you anyway?’

  ‘I’m a doctor of Divinity. Is that relevant?’

  The medic gave Henry a hard stare.

  ‘Apparently not. I imagine that you can come and collect your daughter in a couple of days, after we’ve completed the appropriate tests. If you phone the hospital they will let you know the details. But she’s a very lucky girl. Very lucky that there were some people, other than her father, prepared to take an interest in her health. I bid you good day, Doctor Templeton.’

 
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