The last summer of the w.., p.26
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.26

           Tim Lott
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  Henry’s typewriter. It was only then, through the cloud of alcohol, that I remembered his book.

  The book about everything.

  Five years’ work.

  I staggered to my feet. There were flames on either side of me now, ten feet away, raging. The forest beyond the first fringe of trees had taken. It would be clearly visible from some of the habitations a mile or two beyond the fields, and they would have telephones. The fire service would be called, but it would be too late.

  The single sheet of flame that had first ignited Ho Koji was swelling into three dimensions. I started towards the boat, holding my hand up as if it could protect me against the flames. I staggered closer. I could almost feel the lick of the flames. I could see Henry’s study through the porthole, full of smoke, but no flames. I tried to force open the window, but it wouldn’t budge.

  I looked around for something heavy, and found a statuette of a Buddha on the edge of the deck. I raised my arm and smashed it into the window. It gave way immediately, leaving a star-shaped hole full of jagged edges. I struck again, but it was still framed with sharp-angled glass. I dropped the Buddha in the river and climbed through. I felt the glass against my skin, and had a sense of the blood running down my arm, but it didn’t hurt. The smoke invaded my lungs. Licks of black and orange flame were pushing through under the study door and caressing the legs of the desk. I was coughing desperately. I lay down on the floor to breathe more easily; the smoke was thinner there. I crawled on all fours, trying to locate the manuscript.

  The wooden desk had caught now. I spotted the manuscript in a three-tier tray at the bottom, a clump of paper maybe six inches thick. It had already ignited, was blackening at the edges. I drew myself up and made a grab at it. The fire burned me, the fire of the paper, the fire of Henry’s words. But I held on.

  The pain was intense. The smoke was overwhelming. I felt my consciousness slipping. The manuscript was turning black before my eyes, then grey and red, a pulsing heart of blue.

  I felt strong arms around my chest and then a sharp tug. Someone was dragging me away from the desk.

  ‘The book.’ My voice was barely audible, even to myself. I held on to the last intact desk leg.

  ‘Let go. For God’s sake, let go!’

  I recognized Troy’s voice. The desk leg slipped from my hands. Then Troy was somehow dragging me out of the small broken window. I felt the jags of the glass tearing at my legs.

  He hauled me across the small gangplank and on to the singed grass, which was cloaked in black smoke. He found a spot that was clear and laid me down. I coughed violently. My head began to clear. I looked at the palm of the hand with which I had been scrabbling at the manuscript. It was black, with patches of vivid red. It started to hurt.

  Trance-like, I turned my attention back to the boat. It was nearly gone now. I turned back to the field, where I had started the fire. I saw Henry standing there, and Strawberry, clearly stunned but looking healthier than I had ever seen her before.

  Troy remained standing over me, hands on hips, half breathing, half choking. He grabbed a bucket, ran to the river and started hopelessly to try and douse the flames.

  Neither Henry, Strawberry nor I moved.

  ‘What is this?’ said Henry quietly.

  ‘I’ve saved you,’ I said simply, slurring my words only slightly. ‘I’ve made it right.’

  Henry didn’t even glance at the boat.

  ‘Where’s the book?’

  I stared at him. I said nothing, but it was clear that he understood.

  He ran his hand through his hair. He took two deep breaths. Then he started taking off his clothes.

  Strawberry screamed at him.

  ‘What are you doing? Have you gone fucking crazy?’

  The flames climbed either side of us. Troy had realized the futility of his task and was making his way back to us, tears streaming down his face from the smoke.

  Henry continued undressing until he was completely naked. Strawberry turned away.

  Henry’s body shook. He was bent over, shaking.

  I thought he was crying. But then I saw that he was laughing.

  Laughing joyfully, uproariously.

  He began to dance, his head thrown back. The flames threw shadows on to his body as they grew ever closer. It seemed like the river itself was on fire.

  I heard the faint sound of sirens in the distance.

  ‘Do you hear that?’ said Henry. I thought at first he was talking about the sirens, but he was looking in the other direction.

  ‘The water,’ was the last thing I heard Henry say. ‘The river. It’s singing.’

  Before any of us could do anything to stop him, he slipped into the water and began slowly to swim downstream.

  Strawberry sat down on the grass, the flames licking closer to her all the time.

  Troy didn’t take any notice. The tears on his face, I now saw, were not from the smoke.

  I watched Henry quietly as the flames licked the river orange. He was swimming away towards the bend. He didn’t look back. His stroke was strong yet relaxed. His face turned every few seconds to take in air, then returned into the water.

  Cinders fell on to the river, surrounding him like rain, some falling on his hair and back. Nothing interrupted his stroke.

  I turned back to Strawberry and Troy. The flames were now only a few feet from us. We were practically surrounded by a circle of fire. The smell of kerosene was everywhere. I looked back at the river. Henry had gone. There were only ripples, the illusion of movement, spreading outwards.

  ‘We have to go,’ I said, grabbing Strawberry by the arm. Troy was covered in ash and his face was blackened. He held up his hands. Like mine, they were blistered and burned.

  There was still a gap in the forest that for some reason was untouched by the fire. In a line of three, we walked through it, into the clear air, the safe space on the other side.

  Sirens approached, and I registered two fire engines come racing down the track towards the reach. As soon as the first one got to us, a fireman leapt from the cabin.

  ‘Is anyone hurt?’ he shouted as other firemen disgorged themselves from the engines and began to work the hose free.

  ‘Yes,’ I said in a voice flat and dead and even.

  Ignoring the firemen, we walked across the field, none of us sure where we were going, the fire at our backs, the sun punishing our faces.

  The next day was a Saturday. My hand had been dressed and bandages put on my cuts, which, fortunately, were shallow. The pain in my hand, though, had become almost unbearable and I swallowed as many paracetemol as I dared.

  I had spent the night after the fire at Troy’s, where Strawberry was also staying. The first thing I did after I woke up and dressed was to go and find a telephone box.

  I rang my father’s shop, cradling the receiver gingerly in my bandaged hand. Ray’s voice, as ever, was harassed, impatient to get back to the shop floor and deal with whatever customers were demanding of him.

  ‘Dad,’ I said. My voice came out stiff and cracked, as if it had been burned itself.

  ‘Adam. What’s the matter?’

  ‘Dad,’ I repeated.

  ‘Are you calling about tomorrow? I’ll be there. As promised. Why are you calling?’

  ‘Because . . .’

  I picked at a piece of chewing gum that was stuck to one of the window panels, as if it could help me unpick my own confusions. When I spoke again, I felt myself blurting, without thought.

  ‘Can you come and get me, Dad? Can you come and get me now? Today?’

  ‘Adam. It’s Saturday. It’s our busiest time. We’re understaffed. I’m coming tomorrow.’

  For the first time since my mother died, I began to cry.

  ‘I know, Dad, but – I’ve hurt myself. I’ve hurt myself, Dad.’

  I vomited up sobs, I retched out wails. The pain in my bandaged hand was becoming too much to bear.

  There was silence at the other end of the line. A wo
man standing outside the booth stared at me impatiently, her eyes hard and accusing.

  After maybe thirty seconds had passed I spoke again, this time in resignation at what I assumed would be my father’s answer.

  ‘Dad. I should go now. Someone’s waiting to use the phone.’

  In twenty-five years working in the shop, my father had never taken an unscheduled day off for any reason. To take a Saturday off was unthinkable.

  The silence continued.

  Then, quietly, distinctly, I heard Ray say: ‘I’m leaving right now.’

  No one ever saw Henry again. He was presumed dead but no body was found. I feel deep in my core that he’s alive somewhere, following his own path, navigating his own river. Perhaps in Mexico, perhaps in India, with some woman, or alone, working again on his book, the book that will explain all the secrets of the world.

  I passed my exams in History. I got a B. Henry had told me, ‘Play your life as if it were a game.’ And although the questions and the answers I gave to them were both meaningless, I played the game, and I was given my prize, my magical piece of paper.

  Living with Ray was different afterwards. He ruffled my hair sometimes, and I didn’t demur. Occasionally we would watch some comedy on TV and laugh together. Ray was boring and unadventurous, but he was my dad. I admired Henry; he captivated me. But I loved Ray. There was all the difference in the world.

  All the same, living on the boat had changed me, and I could no longer be held by the magnetic torpor of Buthelezi House. Shortly after my A-level result arrived, I went to live with Troy for a while. Strawberry had moved in with him while she waited for the legal processes that would allow her to inherit the substantial insurance payment on the Ho Koji, which she came into shortly after her eighteenth birthday. The story that was told to the loss adjuster about the barbecue that went wrong was accepted by the insurance company without demur – apparently it was a common enough event that summer.

  Troy looked after her with great compassion and care. She fattened herself up, and they went into the crystals business, using the capital from the boat. Her radiant health and good looks helped sell the product – she would ascribe it all to the right exposure to rose quartz, or aquamarine, or chalcopyrite. They made good money.

  Eventually, she married a farmer and they had a child. She called him Henry. So far as I am aware, they are living quite prosperously in a small village in the Somerset Levels. We don’t see each other much. It was another time.

  I never saw Ash again, or Wesley Toshack, although I did bump into Pattern and Vanya from time to time while I was living in Bristol. Moo had a child, then another. Pattern signed up for the nine-to-five – he ended up a manager in an IT firm. By all accounts he was a good father and a good manager.

  Vanya divorced her plumber husband after he beat her senseless one day in a drunken rage after his football team had lost and she had chosen the wrong moment to ask him to vacuum the stairs. She opened a small shop selling antiques and bric-à-brac. She never married again. She told me she was very happy on her own. She had realized that it wasn’t just men that were the problem. It was people.

  The burn on my hand never healed. Even now it looks as if it is part liquid. Still, sometimes, it hurts. I use it to remind me what Henry told me – that everything, even matter, flows. And within the flowing there is pain.

  Things happened to me or I made things happen. Perhaps those are just two different ways of looking at the same thing. I don’t look for causes any more. Life flows through me, containing in every instant the possibility of freedom; but only the possibility.

  Sometimes my life seems more like history – accidents that no one can explain leading to consequences that no one can foresee.

  There are moments I am shot through with piercings of joy. At other times, I feel the scouring beauty of grief. Each, I know now, depends on the other. Neither of them lasts. In between are stretches of nothingness, of neutrality, flat and unbound.

  I have a house by the water now, where I have wanted to live ever since that distant season. Sometimes I walk down to the river, and in the summer I see the water striders, standing perfect and graceful and so fragile. They do nothing, they are still. The water holds them aloft on the elastic bed of surface tension. Even though they are cruel, and even though they cannot help but feed on the living beauty around them with their pitiful jaws, they seem to me inspiring creatures, those Jesus bugs, living lives of grace and beauty and economy and sustenance.

  Then a hungry fish will come from underneath, and they are consumed by the water they trusted. Again and again they are consumed. But the others that remain on the surface, they do not see, or they forget, or they are brave. So they keep on praying, and trusting the hazardous, predatory depths beneath them.

  They keep on trusting all the same.


  Thanks to Christina Ostrem at the Portixol Hotel, Mallorca, and Penny and Kit Noble at Nonsuch House, Dartmouth, for their kindness and hospitality. Also Mike Jones, Suzanne Baboneau and Clare Alexander. And Rachael Newberry, who does things that matter while I make stuff up. A final shout out to Ruby, Cissy, Lydia and Esme, my remarkable daughters.



  Tim Lott, The Last Summer of the Water Strider



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