The last summer of the w.., p.5
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.5

           Tim Lott
 
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  Henry led us into the interior. I followed, close behind Henry’s naked brown back. His buttocks were clearly visible either side of the loincloth. They were as brown as the rest of him.

  We entered the main cabin, which, to my surprise, was wall-to-wall carpeted with thick white pile, within the soiled forest of which I could see cigarette burns and several tea or coffee stains. There was a slightly raised platform to the right of me, on which sat a small, unvarnished, rectangular wooden table with four battered iron folding chairs. On the table was a roughly cast green-glazed ceramic tea set, which my father would have designated ‘ethnic’ since the cups had no handles or saucers and the glaze was unfinished. To the right of the table there was a small galley area, which comprised a sink with a single tap, a draining-board and a Calor gas hob and grill. Under the portholes on the opposite side was a seating area, simply some low storage cupboards with flat cushions placed on top of them. As Henry had promised, there was a music system in the far left-hand corner, with speakers the size of filing cabinets.

  There was an astonishing number of books piled into the space, some arrayed on makeshift bookshelves, others sitting in teetering piles on the floor. A brief inspection revealed few novels among the collection. It was largely philosophy, psychology and anthropology. An orange-embroidered kilim hung across one of the walls, depicting, in stitch, an elephant and rider.

  Henry started fumbling with his loincloth, which was apparently in danger of coming undone. My father was breathing heavily. Instead of following Henry’s instructions to take my things upstairs, he put the bags down, grunted and pointed to a paisley-patterned cotton robe that lay in a pile on the floor. Henry made a good-natured apology about losing track of ‘the way things are done’, dropped the loincloth to reveal his genitals again, and put on the robe.

  Now he was decent, he tried to hug my father for a second time. Ray acceded, but remained stiff, his arms pressed against his sides, his eyes sliding from side to side in their sockets. Then he pulled away.

  ‘Jesus, Henry. Why are you always grabbing people?’

  ‘Sorry, Raymond. You just seemed lonely.’

  ‘I’m not lonely.’

  ‘I’m sure the loss of Evie must still weigh on you very heavily.’

  ‘Why have you always got to talk that way? Like you were broadcasting on the wireless.’

  Henry shrugged, and his gaze alighted on me again. I somehow wished he would hug me too, but he simply held out a hand. I shook it.

  Ray busied himself with the bags again.

  ‘You’ve had a long journey. Settle down for a moment. I’ll muster a brew.’

  My father, who was clearly tired, stopped fussing with the luggage and settled himself down at the table, looking incongruous and uncomfortable in his permanent-press suit trousers, grey easy-iron rayon shirt and staff-discount Hush Puppies. His thin socks were visible beneath the cuff of his trouser legs. Above one of the socks I noticed a little stripe of pale flesh, bumpy like chicken skin, the sight of which somehow made me sad.

  Henry offered him a choice of herbal teas ‘from California’ – camomile, peppermint or liquorice ‘yogi tea’. Ray requested ‘a common-or-garden cup of char’. I asked for coffee, which, instead of being ladled out of a jar as was invariably the case in Buthelezi House, Henry carefully prepared using a stovetop Italian-style moka and beans which he ground in an old-fashioned mill. Having delivered the drinks, he lit a cigarette from a packet of twenty Lucky Strike, then joined us at the table.

  The porthole windows were open, as was the front door. A warm breeze explored the room. A large brown duck waddled through the door, gave a single quack and made a beeline for my father, who recoiled anxiously. Then the duck – which had a yellow plastic tag attached to one of its legs – altered course and marched in martial style around the carpet as if it had something pressing to do. It snapped once or twice at my father.

  ‘That’s Ginsberg,’ said Henry. ‘He sometimes comes and pays a visit if he has nothing better to do. I consider him to be my lucky mascot.’

  ‘What’s his bloody problem?’ said Ray, eyeing the duck carefully as if it might rush him.

  ‘He seems friendly enough to me,’ I said.

  Henry shrugged. ‘He has his good days and bad days, like all of us.’

  ‘What are you talking about, Henry? He’s a duck, not some tortured soul. Anyway how do you know it’s not just any old duck?’

  ‘Because he has a ring round his leg. Something to do with conservation. As for him being a tortured soul, on the contrary: it seems to me that Ginsberg is very much at one with himself.’

  ‘You really do come out with some cobblers.’

  ‘Is he anxious? Is he hungry? Does he have regrets about the past? Or worries about the future?’

  ‘Probably not, since he’s got a brain about the size of a bloody pea.’

  Ginsberg eyed my father with what I felt certain was a degree of hostility. He gave one more plaintive quack, then, still purposeful, waddled out of the front door, his rear end swinging like a chorus girl’s.

  My father, visibly relieved, took a sip of his tea. I saw him making a face as it occurred to him that it was not Typhoo at all. I had noticed the packet – it was a breakfast blend from Fortnum & Mason.

  Then Ray started to talk. It was as if the duck had shocked him into action. He was the most garrulous I had seen him by far since my mother had died.

  After talking about the onerousness of his work at the shop, the progress or otherwise of my studies and the chronic back pain he suffered as a result of bending so much to fit his customers’ shoes to their feet, he began, almost as if he had run out of other things to say, to talk of the funeral. How it had been a disappointment, how the vicar had barely known anything about my mother, how he wished he’d chosen a more appropriate casket. It was out of character for him – but there was something in the atmosphere on that boat that made people do surprising things, I later learned.

  Also, the place appeared to intimidate him with its threat of peace. The boat seemed held in a corona of deep silence, nothing like the suburban pastiche of quiet, which was perpetually overlaid by a soundscape of cars, planes, voices and distant transistor radios. Henry listened attentively, occasionally stealing a glance at me. Despite how impressed I was with what I had seen of the boat and its furnishings, I was determined to remain surly. My coffee tasted black and sweet and earthy, and it made my heart beat fast.

  My father gulped down his tea, shifting continually in his chair. Henry sat very still and watched him. He had grown a small goatee beard since the last time I’d seen him. It suited him. Everything suited Henry.

  My father suddenly rose and turned to me. He seemed uncertain as to what to say. Then he touched me on the shoulder, nodded and turned towards the door.

  ‘I ought to be going.’

  ‘But I haven’t shown you round the boat,’ said Henry.

  ‘A boat’s a boat,’ said Ray. ‘Thanks for the tea.’

  ‘There’s no need to be rude, Dad.’

  ‘That’s enough from you. I’ll not be taking any lessons in manners from you.’

  Henry looked mildly across at me. ‘It’s OK. I don’t mind.’

  I made no more protest. In all honesty, I was desperate for Ray to leave.

  Ray turned back to Henry. He looked faintly chastened.

  ‘Henry. Look. I appreciate this. I do. You’ve been gone a long time. I suppose I’m not sure I’m quite used to you popping up again. But listen. I’m grateful. Really.’

  He reached in his pocket and drew out a thin roll of ten-pound notes.

  ‘This is to see Adam through the summer. I hope it’s enough.’

  ‘Dad. Why can’t you just give it to me?’

  Henry threw me a glance that required – no, requested – my silence. He took the money and put it in the pocket of his robe.

  ‘I’ll make sure he budgets wisely, Raymond, don’t worry.’

  ‘OK, then.
He turned to me. ‘See? Your Uncle Henry agrees.’

  I said nothing. There was an awkward pause, then Ray rested his hand on my shoulder. I wasn’t sure how to respond. After a few moments, I felt its weight lift, and Ray headed towards the front door. Neither Henry nor I moved. Ray turned again before he left the room, as if to say something. His mouth opened, but no words emerged. He snapped it closed again and nodded, twice, as if that settled everything. I raised a hand briefly in farewell.

  ‘Say goodbye to your dad,’ said Henry, surprisingly sharply.

  ‘Goodbye, Dad,’ I said. I looked at him standing in the doorway, forlorn.

  ‘Look after yourself, kiddo. Good luck, Henry.’

  ‘Adiós, Ray.’

  Then he was gone. After thirty seconds, I heard the car start. There was the squeal of tyres, followed by the sound of the motor fading into the distance. Ginsberg reappeared, raised his head as if to acknowledge the new status quo, then waddled briskly out again.

  Henry came and sat back at the table with me. He reached into his pocket and handed me the wad of notes. I pocketed them.

  ‘Thanks.’

  ‘People should be free to make their own mistakes,’ said Henry.

  ‘Really?’

  ‘A cornerstone of my philosophy. “The fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” Blake.’

  ‘Blake who?’

  My coffee was almost drained. I remained determined to be unimpressed. We sat in silence, finishing our dregs. Henry offered me a Lucky. I took it and he lit it for me. He smiled, as if he considered some kind of deal to have been struck. I smiled too, for a different reason, silently sealing a pact with myself that I wasn’t about to be Henry’s stooge, or his disciple. He was part of the adult world and as such was not to be trusted, however particular an example of the species he considered himself to be. Adults always let you down, with their parade of good intentions, their self-sabotage, their brutal, unheralded transience.

  ‘Shall I show you round the rest of the boat?’

  ‘A boat’s a boat,’ I said, deadpan.

  Henry laughed. I rose and followed him towards the stern. In the centre of the boat was the small staircase leading up to the second level. We walked past that to the two rooms beyond it, one on either side of a small passageway. Henry opened the doorway to his right, to reveal an interior that was little bigger than a cupboard. There was a single mattress on the floor, a few blankets and a chest of drawers. It was stifling. The room, however, acquired an atmosphere of romance from the large round porthole that looked out over the river.

  ‘This is the spare room. I have the occasional visitor.’

  The room opposite, which overlooked the reach, was somewhat larger and altogether more pleasant. It was likewise dominated by a porthole, and contained a trestle table and an adjustable office chair. The table surface was almost entirely obscured by scraps of paper, and in the middle of the mess was a sturdy old black Remington typewriter. There was also a chrome filing cabinet, a multi-storey paper tray and a pin-board covered from border to border with scribbled notes, receipts, letters, snapshots – Indian temples, beaches at sunset – and ticket stubs.

  ‘This is my office. And this . . .’ Henry reached over to a drawer in the desk and pulled out a large pile of A4 papers, ‘is my book. This is what I do every day. I’m near the end now.’

  ‘What’s it about?’

  ‘Everything,’ said Henry, and put the manuscript back into the drawer.

  He led me up the staircase to the upper level, which was smaller than the lower one, and contained only two bedrooms, Henry’s on one side and mine on the other, as well as a tiny loo-cum-shower-room. There was also an entrance to the sun deck, where I could see the nubby towel on the back of the lounger moving in the breeze.

  Henry’s room was full of intriguing objects: jade Buddhas, Japanese watercolours, a ceremonial sword and an ink and pen set – ‘For calligraphy,’ he explained. There was a silk screen, which served no obvious purpose. His bed had a painted headboard which showed a snake consuming its own tail, and was covered with a large green embroidered coverlet, the sheen of which suggested silk.

  My room overlooked the river through a square window. The bed was a single, with an iron bedstead and a continental quilt with a plain white cover. There was a pillow with a matching coverlet. There were two folded towels on the bed and a purple beanbag on the floor. The floor itself was laid with battered cork tiles. There was a small wardrobe, a chest of drawers and a tiny pine desk with a sloping lid that looked as if it had been salvaged from a schoolroom. A matching chair stood in front of it. Adjacent to the desk was a sink with an unframed mirror over it. The room had little in the way of decoration, but it was full of light, and somehow profoundly friendly. I liked it, and thanked Henry for it. He told me I was welcome.

  We fetched up what there was of my luggage. Henry finished the cigarette he was smoking, apologised to me, and said that he knew it appeared terribly inhospitable, but he had set himself a very strict work schedule and needed to stick to it, despite my arrival. He promised to make up for it later in the evening. He asked if I could amuse myself for a couple of hours while settling in and allow him to complete his work for that day. Then he left, without waiting for an answer, tugging on his beard with one hand and blithely scratching his buttocks through the material of his robe with the other.

  I started to put my possessions into the drawers and the wardrobe. After a minute or so, I could hear the clatter of his typing from the office downstairs. The typing was as repetitive and irritating as the birdsong that I could hear outside my window. I wanted to feel happy, but I felt afraid – not of Henry, but of boredom, and nothingness, and the slow, dead tug of water against a vessel that could never be launched.

  I lay down on the bed and drifted into sleep.

  Five

  When I woke, there were rich, unfamiliar smells permeating the air. They were spicy and exotic. This made me feel nervous. I had been brought up on plain food. My mother rarely stretched herself imaginatively beyond spaghetti bolognese and my father, after her death, had never offered me anything other than toast-related snacks, precooked pies, chops and plain boiled veg.

  Outside, the first gutterings of dusk were encroaching on the aerosol blue of the sky. It seemed I had slept for several hours. I could hear Henry clunking around in the galley. The odd molecule of Calor Gas drifted up the staircase, reminding me of the camping holidays my parents had compelled me to participate in when I was a child. The sulphurous, fartlike smell brought back thoughts of wind and rain, cold showers in the morning and long walks across chilly fields and stony beaches in the afternoons.

  I pumped some cold water from the tank and splashed my face. In the light reflected from the river, I looked different from the image that was presented to me every morning in Buthelezi House. I saw myself as raw, as if a layer of skin had been stripped from my face. I looked young. I never thought of myself that way any more.

  The clunking stopped and a few seconds later, Uncle Henry appeared at the doorway. He was wearing faded jeans, a T-shirt with the emblazoned words FILLMORE EAST and a pair of battered brown open-toed leather sandals. His hair was slicked back behind his ears. In his hand was a tumbler of red wine, which he held out towards me. I was confused that it was in a tumbler. In my experience, wine always came served in a stemmed glass, and was never offered to anyone under eighteen.

  I took it and downed it in a swig. I didn’t say thank you. Henry nodded, as if acknowledging something too obvious to be spoken, and informed me that dinner would be ready in about twenty minutes. Then he left the room.

  Half an hour passed. The sun had fallen very low. There was a deep, hazy dusk. I was reluctant to leave my room. The existence of other people in the world seemed an imposition. I looked through the window at the dark water, and dreamed of slipping under it.

  I heard Henry’s warm, sandpapery voice calling up to me. I rose, still in bare feet, and slouched m
y way downstairs into the main room. It was very warm. The table was laid with deep-red ‘ethnic’ ceramic kitchenware.

  ‘Moroccan,’ said Henry without turning round, as if he had sensed the question in my gaze.

  There were silver knives and forks that bore hallmarks and the patina of age. There was a crystal wine goblet in front of one place, and a tumbler in front of the other. Remaining silent, I duly sat down in front of the water glass. Henry informed me politely that I was sitting in the wrong place – he was the one who was drinking water.

  He brought over an earthenware pot and started to dole out the food. I know now that it was Thai green curry, though I had no idea at the time. I registered that there were leaves in it, and stared it at grimly. Henry served out his own portion. He replaced the cooking pots, sat down opposite me and raised his glass in a toast. I rather awkwardly raised my wineglass.

  It occurred to me some twenty minutes later – through the haze of several more glasses of wine – that Uncle Henry might be queer. My prejudices informed me that queers liked cooking and wine and art. He was childless and unmarried. My father talked of him as a womanizer, but I had no reason to think my father’s information in any way reliable. He had invited me, a seventeen-year-old boy, on to his boat for the whole summer with no obvious motive, other than a professed compassion and out of a supposed respect for a family connection that he had shown no traces of previously in his life. The attempts to win me over – giving me Ray’s money, offering me cigarettes and red wine – suddenly appeared to me as suspect.

  As I sat there, I became uncomfortably convinced that he was going to try and take advantage of me. I shifted uneasily on my chair, and stared at the French loaf I had been picking at in lieu of eating my supper.

  Henry indicated with a wave of his hand that I should eat. He had finished his meal and I had barely touched mine. I noticed that his fingers were very long and delicate, displaying several elaborate rings, more evidence in my mind, now, of his homosexuality. I shook my head. I said I didn’t much like it. He asked me how I knew I didn’t like it when I hadn’t tried it. It was one of those trick questions my parents used to ask me when I was a kid. I didn’t answer.

 
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