The last summer of the w.., p.25
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.25

           Tim Lott
 
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  Henry was silent on the drive back to the boat. In fact, he had been more or less silent since the day Strawberry had been taken from the cabin to the hospital. He had not issued recriminations against me, or railed against the Toshacks. In fact, he had shown very little emotion at all, continuing to work on his book and keeping to his normal routine.

  When we were close to the mooring, without looking at me, he said: ‘It’s all over.’

  I said nothing, merely kept staring straight ahead at the road in front of us.

  Henry nodded, as if in confirmation of his own thoughts.

  ‘They’re bound to award the court order against me. I can muster all the legal defences I want, but what underlies the whole action is the question of whether I am a responsible citizen. They object to my unconventional lifestyle. That’s what’s at the root of it.’

  ‘Are you a responsible citizen?’ I said quietly. ‘Or a responsible father?’

  ‘I understand that you wish to judge me,’ said Henry. ‘I understand that you blame me. But you don’t understand how hard I have tried to help Susan in the past. I wasn’t prepared, as Toshack was, to simply bully her into a hospital. Perhaps I was wrong, I don’t know. But I passionately believed I was doing the right thing. And if you don’t stand on your beliefs, what are you? A straw in the wind.

  ‘I have nothing now, you know. I will lose my home. They will take Susan away from me. It’s over. And do you know something? I’m not sure that I really care. There are mansions in the mind, Adam. I can find comfort there.’

  ‘You need money to live.’

  Henry looked vague.

  ‘I have a great affection for Mr Micawber. Something will turn up, I dare say.’

  We arrived at the boat and Henry, having embarked, immediately returned to his book. I spoke to him only once more that day, to ask him how it was going.

  ‘It’s almost finished. A few more days. I’m pleased with it. Yes.’

  It suddenly occurred to me that I still knew almost nothing about the book.

  ‘What’s it called?’

  ‘At the moment it’s called Book.’

  ‘You can’t just call a book Book.’

  ‘Why not?’

  ‘I still don’t understand what it’s about.’

  ‘And you won’t until you’ve read it. Which I very much hope, one day, you will. But if you want a simple answer, it’s a book about why the world doesn’t make any sense. And before you ask, “Why doesn’t it make any sense?” – well, that’s what I spend the book trying to explore.’

  I was none the wiser. I left Henry to it, wondering, not for the first time, if he was deranged, or someone living out his life on a higher plane than the rest of us. During all the time Strawberry had been in hospital, although unusually quiet he had betrayed no other signs of anxiety. It struck me as inhuman. Or, possibly, more than human.

  The day of the county court hearing reminded me of the atmosphere at Evie’s funeral. Henry packed up all his paperwork for his defence. There were reams of the stuff. Most of it he could fit into his briefcase, but the remainder had to be stuffed into a plastic shopping bag.

  There was time to visit Strawberry before the hearing. She had been given the all-clear, and was sitting up in bed. She informed Henry that she had given up the diet completely, and was happily scarfing any of the vile hospital food that was put in front of her. She had not accepted that she was misguided in following her regime – she was, on the contrary, somewhat proud of herself that she had taken it so far. But she finally recognized that there was a time to stop. The poisons, she declared, had left her body. The coma was their last gasp.

  She nevertheless seemed to have grasped, at some level, how close she had come to death, and this had had a moderating effect on her formidable will-power. She now talked of acceptance, of ‘going with the flow’, of bending with the wind and living a balanced life rather than an ascetic one.

  Before we left for the court, she handed Henry a letter.

  ‘Look at it in good time before the hearing,’ she said. ‘And then read it to the court. Please.’

  We drove the last few miles in silence. Henry, dressed in not even his best suit, turned to me and smiled once or twice, but it was clear he had already resigned himself to the outcome.

  The court itself was within an ugly 1960s concrete building, already showing signs of staining from the weather. The interior was no more attractive. The small room where the hearing was taking place had little of the majesty of justice. There was pine cladding behind the judges’ bench, and below the level of the bench, where the litigants and the public sat, there were long narrow tables with single sofa-seats, all clad in some nasty veneer and black plastic. There were plastic beakers of water on the tables and a coat of arms above where the judge sat.

  The judge wore an ordinary grey suit, and seemed brisk and cheerful, smiling without discrimination at the small congregation below, although the smile was unconvincing, like that carved into a Hallowe’en pumpkin. On one side of the room, myself and Henry. I scrabbled around on the desk, trying to help him to find documents and notes. On the other side, lawyers from both the church commissioners and the local council. There was a stenographer, a few court officers and a reporter from the local paper. Also there, to Henry’s great consternation, were Pritchard, Constable Urquhart and one of the parents of the girl who had seen Henry swimming naked.

  In the public gallery sat Pattern and Moo, Vanya and Troy. There were a few faces I didn’t recognize. And there was Toshack, in full church regalia, gazing down like Zeus, eyes shooting sparks.

  The proceedings didn’t take too long – I suspected Henry’s heart wasn’t in it any more. He defended himself against the charge that he had concealed his criminal record when he had taken over the lease, arguing convincingly that not only had the offences taken place years previously in another country, but that no such information had been required of him when he signed the lease. The allegations by Pritchard that there had been an illegal gathering at the boat were also dealt with efficiently by Henry, who had done his homework and demonstrated convincingly that no by-laws had been transgressed.

  The judge beamed down as if delighted by the whole spectacle of the proceedings. When the allegation of indecent exposure was made, he smiled even more widely. Henry pointed out that no action had been taken at the time, and that he had a right to swim unclothed in a remote stretch of river.

  Even the complainant, a nervous sprig of a man in a grey suit who looked leaned-upon and shifty, seemed uncertain of his ground. The judge continued to beam, and scribble occasionally on the notepad in front of him.

  The atmosphere in the courtroom changed for the final complaint, however.

  Testimony by Urquhart – unopposed by Henry – that Strawberry Shortcake, née his seventeen-year-old daughter Susan Templeton, had been slowly starving to death under his care drained all levity out of the room. Photographs were produced of her after hospitalization – she looked, from the angle they had been taken, like a concentration-camp survivor. Urquhart’s description of the scene when he and Toshack had arrived at the cabin was surprisingly poetic. He talked of his ‘profound disquiet’ and ‘intense sympathy’ for the girl. He and Toshack swapped glances. It was fairly obvious that the police constable had been schooled.

  Lastly came Toshack. He pulled out all the stops, presenting himself as an Elmer Gantry, although I thought of him as Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter. He was holy, he was upright, he was a proud man of God, he was forgiving, but he was stern: this must not stand. And so on.

  Finally it was Henry’s turn. He faced the judge. I waited for his defence. I was sure he wouldn’t go down without a fight. When he spoke he called on all his reserves of gravitas, which were considerable. A certain electricity entered the staleness of the proceedings. People in the court, including the clerk and the stenographer, sat up sharply and attended to the rumble and boom of his voice.

  ‘Your Honour.
I have today been standing here fighting for my home, my honour and my reputation against a number of unfair and unfairly presented slanders on my character. They are not motivated, as they present themselves, by human charity and decency, but by greed and cynicism. The council wish to remove me from the reach because they consider my boat an eyesore and, worse than that, unusual. A different way of living. This threatens them in some irrational and obscure way that makes them seek my destruction.

  ‘As for the church commissioners, they have been got up to this by a certain person in this court who stands to benefit and profit from my removal from Lexham Reach. I will not name him as I am aware that the law of slander still pertains in civil law. But he knows who I am talking about. He knows.’

  ‘A damn lie,’ muttered Toshack audibly.

  The judge glared at Toshack. Henry continued, ignoring the interruption.

  ‘I have defended myself, I believe, successfully regarding three of the four charges that have been laid in front of you today, alleging contravention of the terms of the lease. It is very clear to me that the evidence brought against me in these cases is weak, and well short of the balance of probabilities that is required for a verdict against me.

  ‘However, in the fourth case, that of my daughter Susan Templeton, who chooses to call herself Strawberry, I have little in the way of a legal defence. She is my daughter. She is technically a child. She did come to harm under my care.’

  There was a silence, as I waited for Henry to parry his own thrust.

  ‘Before I continue, I would like to read out this letter from my daughter, if the court will permit me. She was not fit to leave hospital today, but she was passionate about wishing to make her side of events heard.’

  There were objections from the other bench, but the judge overruled them.

  ‘The letter reads as follows:

  Dear Judge and members of the court

  My name is Susan Templeton, and I am the daughter of Dr Henry Templeton.

  I would like to enter my plea that my father be allowed to stay on the Ho Koji. He has looked after me well since I came to England from America last year, and shown me all the love and consideration that a father owes a daughter. Part of that love and consideration was, I believe, to allow me to make my own decisions about my body, and how I should treat it.

  This may not be what the law requires of him. I do not know. But I for one will always remain grateful. If harm was inflicted, then it was inflicted by myself, on myself. My father allowed me to follow my own destiny – to take charge of my own biology. He is a good man trying to his best to be true to his own values. Even if the judgement goes against him, as Henry informs me it probably will, I want you to judge him purely in law and not as a man. He is my father. I would once have wished for a better one. But not any longer. He had the rare courage to let me be who I chose to be.

  Love and peace,

  Susan Templeton

  He handed the letter around for inspection. In the meantime, the lawyers for the Church Commission and the council were on their feet, complaining of duress, second-hand testimony, etc.

  The judge, after little more than a few seconds’ consideration, instructed that the testimony be struck from the record, agreeing with the objecting lawyers that it had no legal relevance. Henry nodded, as if it was exactly what he had expected.

  ‘Do you have anything else to say, Dr Templeton?’ asked the judge.

  ‘I have nothing else to say on the matter, Your Honour, other than that I believe I am guilty of nothing more than infringing a technicality of the common law because of my moral beliefs. I do not shrink before my own conscience or the judgement of others. And I would ask you finally to consider, if your concern for my daughter is so profound, how precisely it will benefit her to make her father, and therefore her, effectively homeless. Thank you.’

  It was a desperate last throw. Henry sat heavily down. The judge sighed and cleared the court.

  The verdict took fifteen minutes.

  Henry had thirty days to get off the boat.

  We met with Pattern, Vanya and Troy afterwards in the lobby. Troy gave Henry a hug. Vanya kissed him on the cheek.

  ‘It was all set up before it started,’ said Pattern, shaking Henry’s hand with the air of an old fellow-combatant. ‘The fuckers.’

  ‘For once, Pattern,’ said Henry, ‘and perhaps for the only time, I do believe you’re right.’

  Twenty-six

  The day after the hearing, Henry had to go to the hospital to pick Strawberry up and return her to the place that would be her home for only a matter of weeks. Ray had arranged to collect me that coming Sunday, only two days later.

  Troy turned out to be a surprisingly good friend to Henry. Understanding that there was no money for him to invest in the crystals business, he offered Henry a partnership all the same. ‘You have the mystique, man. I’m just a dumb hippy but you can talk the talk.’ Henry calmly responded that he would give the proposal serious consideration, but I knew his pride wouldn’t allow him to do it.

  After Henry left for the hospital – he was meeting Troy there and they were returning together – I found some of the home-made beer he had served at his lecture and decided to get stuck into it. To celebrate Strawberry’s return, I told myself. It didn’t taste as bad as it smelled. It was strong. After two pints my head swam pleasantly.

  I was lying on a sun lounger, staring at the sky, nursing a half-empty glass, when the solution to everything occurred to me.

  The idea enveloped me like a blessing. I took another swig of beer, gargled it and swallowed, smelling rather than tasting the acrid smack of the hops.

  Henry had always told me to trust my instincts – not to overthink. Not to weigh the pros and cons like my father did, but to dive into things using intuition and the guidance of the unconscious, which, he said, was ‘ancient and wiser than reason’. ‘Go left or go right, but do not wobble’ was the Zen saying he was most fond of.

  I turned the idea over in my mind, examined it, held it up to the light. I could find no flaw in it.

  After lying there for several more minutes, I rose somewhat shakily but determinedly to my feet. My vision, blurring slightly now, located the rusty barbecue. I staggered over to it and wheeled it into the field, halfway between the boat and the forest, a distance of some thirty feet either side. The wheels squeaked and protested as if trying to dissuade me from my still-crystallizing purpose.

  I went and looked in the fridge. There were chops, sausages, a steak, some red peppers and halloumi cheese.

  I set up a barbecue to welcome Strawberry home. That’s what I would say.

  There was a brisk breeze coming off the river. I gathered brushwood, then laid a path of thin twigs between the barbecue and the forest, and another between the barbecue and the boat.

  I found some coals and poured them into the base of the barbecue, then replaced the grill and laid the meat, cheese and vegetables – ‘for Strawberry’ – tenderly on top.

  There was a can of kerosene in a lean-to outside the boat. I fetched it, then emptied a quarter of the contents into the briquettes.

  I used the rest of the liquid to douse the brushwood kindling.

  I checked my watch. I expected Henry, Troy and Strawberry to arrive in about forty-five minutes. By that time, the work should be done. I pulled a box of matches from my pocket. I took another swig of beer.

  Go left, go right, but do not wobble.

  I was fighting with the thought that what I was doing was insane. But with so much other insanity going on around me, could I be blamed? I was still, legally, a child. They wouldn’t lock me up, even if they read my crime in the story of the embers. The thing was to act spontaneously, sincerely and without regret.

  Henry couldn’t find fault. After all, he would lose the mooring in thirty days anyway, and he had nowhere else to put the boat. Without me, all was lost for him.

  The insurance on the Ho Koji would set him up to start again.


  I slowly moved the match towards the charcoal. I was contemplating finally calling the whole thing off when the vapours caught and the thing went up with a giant whoosh – far more violently than I had expected, almost catching me in the face. The wind swung the tower of flames around in all directions. Sparks and, almost immediately, dollops of hot fat began to take to the air.

  I staggered back, astonished at the force I had released. I gazed, mesmerized, then, intoxicated not only by the beer but by the sheer beauty of destruction, I took another match and threw it on the brushwood that led to the forest. It too caught immediately, running at the trees as if possessed by a spirit of fire. The brush leading to the boat went up with similar violence.

  I felt a purifying sense of liberation. The primal erasing of things. Henry had talked to me of Kali the destroyer and Prometheus the fire-god. I felt as though they were working through me, compelling me. The flames were already at the willow curtain and swallowing the scrub under the trees. I sat down on the grass, lit a cigarette and watched the conflagration.

  The Ho Koji began to catch with the same urgent readiness. Black smoke poured out of the roof and flames licked through the windows. I stood and peered through the open sash. I could see the Wharfedale stereo system light up, as if some unheard music had manifested itself physically in the vapour pouring out of the cones and membranes.

  Heat radiated towards me from two sides, the forest and the boat. The violence of the sun above completed a triangle. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a bird with its feathers blazing, screeching, running wildly in circles. I just had time to see that it had a yellow ring round its leg before it was consumed. I looked around for water to pour on him, but there was none. Ginsberg’s screeching soon died away.

  I watched, transfixed, stunned, as the blue and orange flames advanced into the study. I wondered if Henry’s typewriter would melt.

 
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