The last summer of the w.., p.4
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.4

           Tim Lott
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  The owner saw me juddering away – I hadn’t quite mastered the exigencies of the clutch – and immediately phoned the police. They were on the scene within minutes, when I had put only a couple of streets’ distance between myself and the scene of the crime. I panicked, and didn’t have the sense to stop. There followed a brief and farcical car chase. I crashed into the post of a creosoted fence after thirty seconds, denting the Princess and banging my head on the windscreen badly enough to need hospital attention. I ended up in front of the magistrates, with the probability of juvenile detention. But my mother’s death, and a carefully elaborated head bandage, worked in my favour, and they let me off with a caution and a large fine, which my father had no choice but to settle, not without bitterness.

  It was early July. It was apparent to Ray that I had lost the ability to care about anything. In June, immediately after my mother’s death, I had failed to turn up for my History exam, out of raw apathy. Once again, my bereavement got me off the hook – on compassionate grounds my school offered me the opportunity to retake it in September, a prospect that depressed me more than my automatic failure. The two A levels I had completed shortly before my mother died, English and Physics, I felt were doomed to poor grades anyway. Furthermore, I had no plans to go to university, simply because nobody I knew – other than Henry – ever had. I would take a year off, then busk it. I had not the faintest idea what I wanted to do for a living, but I assumed something would turn up. My aspirations were pitched higher than Ray’s and the shoe shop, but not massively so.

  My father, who was struggling to cope with the demands of his job through the dislocations of his grief, told me plainly that he couldn’t deal with me any more. The car theft, the flunked A level, most of all my surly and uncommunicative attitude, came as an intolerable surplus burden on top of his attempts to cope with the loss of Evie and his new, onerous role as a single parent. I was beyond making my standard response to being criticized – that my father was being selfish. Neither was I capable of registering the selfishness that I was displaying towards him. I had lost all interest in both of us.

  Then – as with the sweet peas, as if he had intuited it – a letter arrived from Uncle Henry, reasserting the sincerity of his offer to do anything he could to help. Duly prompted, my father immediately wrote back to him and asked – without checking with me first – whether I could go and stay with him on the boat for the summer.

  Henry phoned the shoe shop the day Ray’s letter arrived in Somerset to say that I would be welcome. He gave his address and told my father to bring me down right away that weekend. He lived alone on the houseboat; there was no schizophrenic ballet dancer. There wasn’t much to do where he lived, Henry said, but he was sure that he and I would find something to amuse ourselves.

  Ray informed me that I should pack up my things on Saturday. He would drive me to Henry’s on Sunday. After that weekend, school was finished for the summer.

  Ray would immediately return to London, and I wouldn’t see him, or Buthelezi House, again until the autumn. I would have a chance to revise for my History A level, which I would then resit.

  I made no resistance. Any course I chose – or was compelled to take – would, I was convinced, have the same lack of significant consequence.

  On the Saturday I packed, neither raising objection nor showing any enthusiasm. Most of my possessions fitted easily enough into my nylon sports holdall and a couple of plastic supermarket bags. There were six pairs of Y-fronts, a pair of brown Speedo swimming trunks, some cut-off Wranglers, patched, bleached and faded. There were several washed-out T-shirts which had long ago lost their shape, some of them bearing the names of bands I liked or slogans of which I approved. One bore an image of Hollywood killer Charles Manson with I AM ONLY WHAT YOU MADE ME. I AM ONLY A REFLECTION OF YOU inscribed beneath, in letters that appeared to drip blood.

  An ancient, battered, green-painted suitcase, steel with rivets, held a couple of bulky towels and a lump of cheap soap. Also Converse basketball boots, black socks disfigured by bobbles, some unattractively fresh brown leather sandals that my dad had got on staff discount from the shop.

  I put a canvas military-style jacket and a bum freezer with a fur collar on top of the pile. I also had a Slazenger shoulder bag for bits and pieces – a Swiss Army knife, a transistor radio, a bag of spearmint chews and a copy of ZigZag magazine. There was also a wooden apple crate, which had once held Cox’s Orange Pippins, containing a selection of my favourite LPs – Jackson Browne, Tim Hardin, Leonard Cohen, and a few others of a likewise introspective and lugubrious nature. Set against these melancholics were a number of heavy-metal albums, including In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly, the first Black Sabbath album, MC5’s Kick Out the Jams, and Deep Purple in Rock. There was a small portable record player, with chipboard case, vinyl-covered, with a hinged lid and a broken catch. I sealed it shut with Sellotape.

  Other than basic toiletries – a bottle of Eau Sauvage aftershave my mother had bought me for Christmas a couple of years back, plus toothpaste and a ragged toothbrush – that was more or less it. I also had my most prized possession, a spick pair of yellow-lensed aviator-style Foster Grants, which lent me the essence, so I believed at the time, of a seasoned veteran of Laurel Canyon in the Hollywood Hills rather than an ordinary teenage slob from the London exurbs.

  After much lobbying by my father, I agreed to pack my revision notes and History textbooks – although I had little intention of applying myself to them. My entrenched listlessness was apparent in the food stains on my clothes; the slouch of my shoulders; the silent, accusatory contortions of my mouth. My examination materials sat lumpen, a jumble in a single plastic bag, the corner of one History primer penetrating the thin polythene like an unwelcome fact piercing an untenable theory.

  The journey to Uncle Henry’s houseboat took nearly four hours. The temperature stood at eighty-three degrees and when we stopped for a roadside picnic – trestle table set up in a lay-by, carbon monoxide from passing juggernauts spicing our luncheon-meat sandwiches – I noted that there was no wind whatsoever, other than displaced air from speeding traffic.

  The boat was moored on a tributary of a tributary of the River Severn, some ten miles or so outside Bristol. Ray and I passed the time more or less in silence. At one point he tried to engage me in a game of red car/blue car, but the competition expired from lack of engagement on my part after several minutes. I can’t remember anything else about the journey except the smell of the car – a mud-coloured five-year-old Ford Anglia, already spawning carbuncles of rust at the wheel arches. My father, who had also become somewhat careless and dilatory of late, had inadvertently left a half-eaten banana under the passenger seat for several days. He had removed it before we set off, but the interior continued to reek of the sweet, decaying pulp throughout the overheated, rickety journey. The windows were open to cool the interior – and purge it of the odour – so the sound of the air pushing past rendered conversation difficult. Not that we had anything to say to one another in the first place.

  Finding the boat was not easy. Henry had posted Ray a small, hand-drawn map, written on the back of a ‘Visit the West Country’ holiday postcard which featured on the front a yokel dressed in sackcloth sitting on a farmyard gate, chewing straw and holding a stone bottle of Somerset cider. The map appeared to have little connection with the actual topography we were experiencing. We turned off the main road, as suggested by the diagram, then on to a B road, then on to a back road, then a mile down what was little more than a dirt track. Any confidence that we could possibly be in the right place drained away. There was no sign of habitation of any kind.

  The rough land we were travelling across – the Anglia creaking and complaining and Ray looking anxious about what effect the terrain was having on the crankshaft – gave way to a small but dense wood looming in front of us. Then the wood was above us, forming a carapace. The vegetation was growing wilder by the yard, looping out from the trees as if intent on disc
ouraging strangers.

  It seemed that we were destined to come to a dead end – the track becoming narrower and narrower, the wood and brush thickening exponentially – but then, just as my father was about to back up and retrace our path, we burst through a row of overhanging trees, one of which scraped the roof of the Anglia with a ratcheting sound that made my father wince and curse. We found ourselves facing an isolated riverbank. Moored flush against the bank was a houseboat, bobbing slightly in the gentle swell of the water. Parked ten yards in front of us was Henry’s Karmann Ghia.

  The wooden boat was constructed on two levels, with sides roughly painted in what I thought of as English green, since it was the dark-seaweed hue of sheds and wooden gates and front doors throughout rural England. Three round porthole-style windows, with horizontal sash divisions bisecting them, were set on the lower level. There were two smaller portholes at the first-floor level. At the prow, a hand-painted legend in Chinese-style script announced the name of the boat – Ho Koji.

  The roof of the upper storey seemed to be set slightly at an angle, presumably in order to facilitate the run-off of rainwater. This gave the boat a rickety, off-centre air. There was a decorative crenellated awning attached as a fringe to the first-floor-level base, also green, but punctuated with alternating leaves of white. The aft of the boat, at its furthermost point, where the cabin and steering wheel might be located on a sea-going craft, held two rectangular windows, which faced us as we sat regarding the boat silently. The car, now unventilated by passing air, heated up quickly to an uncomfortable level, and I climbed out, my trousers stickily unpeeling from the vinyl seat. Ray continued to sit behind the steering wheel, the motor still running, staring, as if unable to take in his brother’s unconventional living arrangements. I don’t know what he had expected – pebbledash, perhaps, or carriage lamps.

  The front door, centred between the two rectangular windows, sat behind a small deck which supported two large ceramic pots containing delicate, red-leafed trees – which Henry later identified as Japanese acers – on either side. The door was intricately carved with birds and flowers, and painted a livid purple which clashed somewhat with the serenity of the surrounding green gloss. Somehow the whole construction had the feel of a gypsy caravan, although it was much larger than any caravan I had ever seen. Both stern and aft were squared off – it clearly wasn’t a boat that was built for river cruising. There was a sun terrace on the higher level, framed by a white rail at waist height. A lounger was stretched out on it, the canvas material decorated with wide blue and white deckchair stripes. A ragged, nubby white towel was draped over the angled back.

  The feeling of the boat was homely. Although I couldn’t think of it as beautiful – it was too blunt and squat for that, and the paint was flaking badly in places – it fitted into the surroundings very naturally, snugly negotiating the space connecting land and water. Another white metal rail, which appeared to be newly painted, since it was much brighter than its yellowing counterpart at the upper level, stretched around the entrance deck, with a gap where the gangplank was attached. The gangplank was set at a right-angle, a short stretch out over the water, then a longer section leading off to the left on to the boat, creating an L shape. There was a single metal chimney protruding from the roof.

  ‘Not exactly the QE2, is it?’ said Ray.

  He finally killed the engine, exited the car and stretched, with a yawn that I think was meant to convey to me how unimpressed he was by his brother’s strange choice of lodgings. He looked uneasily around him, and then spoke briskly, as if he wanted to get my transplantation over and done with as quickly as possible.

  ‘Here we are. Get your things.’

  I didn’t move, and continued to take in the scene. Along the patch of dried grass that ran in a wide rectangular strip abutting the mooring were scattered an array of objects – a rusted metal barbecue, a rattan chair, a few beanbags partly protected by a plastic cover on stilts, and a large rubber mat. There was what appeared to be a generator, which was a relief – I had been concerned that there might not be any electricity.

  A few paperbacks were baking on the ground. One had the intriguing title of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and there was another larger book, about the area of an LP cover, called An Index of Possibilities. It seemed to be some kind of popular-science book. There were the remains of a log fire, which was faintly smouldering, and an empty packet of Smith’s cheese and onion crisps. I could smell ashes and grass cuttings and, perhaps, the river, slightly rotten and fresh at the same time.

  Ray was at the boot, pulling out my steel suitcase, the sports holdall and my green shoulder bag.

  I hauled out my revision books and notes from the back seat and laid them on the grass. I removed my apple box of LPs. I was worried they might have warped in the heat. The plastic bag full of ice I had carefully rested on top of them had long since melted. I emptied the waste water on to the ground, then anxiously took out a disc to check – The Incredible String Band’s Strangely Strange But Oddly Normal. I held the record at a steady horizon. It appeared to have survived the journey intact. I gently lifted out my portable record player, unstuck the Sellotape and confirmed that the needle hadn’t been damaged in transit.

  I decided to check if Henry was actually in the boat. I would have expected him to hear the car pulling in and come to welcome us, but there was no sign of life. I approached the boat and peered through the first porthole I came to.

  Uncle Henry was sitting cross-legged on a futon. He had spectacles on, round and wire-framed like Mahatma Gandhi’s. He was naked. His body was wiry and brown with a little pot belly. His eyes were open and he was absolutely still. I tapped gently on the window with my fingernails, but there was no response.

  My father was already crossing the gangway, carrying the suitcase in one hand and my holdall in the other. It was very quiet. The only sound I was aware of was the slight lapping of water against the hull. Under the waterline, it was patched with green slime. Ray started calling out.

  ‘The charabanc has arrived. Where’s the welcoming committee?’

  There was no answer. My father put down my bags on the front deck, then noticed me staring through the window.

  ‘Is he in there?’ A note of irritation sounded in his voice.

  I gestured for him to come and join me. He looked flustered. There were vast sweat patches mapping his armpits.

  Ray peered through the window. His face ruptured in distaste.

  ‘For Christ’s sake. He could at least have made himself decent.’

  He knocked on the glass with his car keys. Henry did not move or react in any way. He gave the appearance of being dead, except that his pot belly could be seen very slowly expanding and contracting with his breath. Beneath his midriff, his cock was substantial. Perhaps this was another reason for my father’s irritation.

  My father knocked again, more firmly this time. Some light returned to Henry’s eyes, which had been fixed and blank. After a couple of moments, his shoulders dropped slightly and his eyes began to move, though his head remained still. His torso relaxed slightly. His eyes focused and his head swivelled slowly in our direction.

  Showing no embarrassment or surprise, his face broke into a wide smile, displaying his small, even, rather dirty teeth. He rose from his position and stretched, as if nothing could be more normal than sitting naked apparently enjoying an out-of-body experience. He stood still for another moment, facing us, as if inviting us to admire his physique.

  ‘He should put his wedding tackle away at least,’ muttered Ray. ‘Not much to boast about if you ask me,’ he added sourly.

  Henry left the cabin via a door to his left. After about thirty seconds he reappeared at the front deck, with a clean white loincloth wrapped loosely around his hips and his spectacles removed. He beckoned and we crossed the gangplank to join him. Ray marched purposefully while I loped behind.

  ‘Raymond. Adam.’

  He reached his arms out for my fath
er and this time, despite the precedent of the funeral, my father shrank away. Being hugged by a largely naked man, even if it was his brother, was clearly too much for him to stomach. Henry held his shoulders instead, at arms’ length. Ray stood there, rigid. After several seconds, Henry allowed my father out of his grip. He looked past Ray and his gaze fell on me. He winked.

  ‘The real business of the visit,’ Henry said. He smiled his terrific smile. ‘Hey, stupid.’

  ‘Stupid yourself,’ I said casually.

  ‘Can I help unload?’ He ignored the bags on the deck and started striding across the gangplank. Ray and I followed him. On reaching the bank, instead of picking up any bags, he immediately delved into my box of records. He flicked through them, nodding silently and occasionally tut-tutting. My father went towards the gangplank, carrying my suitcase and sports holdall.

  ‘Grim stuff here,’ Henry said. ‘Music to slit your wrists to. Or to listen to whilst strafing innocent passers-by. Shame we don’t have a record player.’

  Before I could tell him that I’d brought my own, he smiled.

  ‘Only kidding, stupid. We’ve got a hi-fi that can break the sound barrier. Fifty-watt Wharfedale speakers. Put your heavy-metal thrash on and see how that sounds. Different world entirely. The bass can shatter tectonic plates.’

  He picked up the box of records and made his way towards the deck, while my father sat waiting with the rest of the luggage, unsure whether or not to enter. I slung my Slazenger bag over my shoulder, balanced my revision materials on top of the record player, and followed Henry.

  ‘What shall I do with these?’ said Ray, brandishing my suitcase and sports holdall.

  ‘Put them in Adam’s room. It’s the one with the orange door decorated with crescent moons. Directly up the stairs and right in front of you.’

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