The last summer of the w.., p.7
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       The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.7

           Tim Lott
 
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‘Yeah, right, he’s this guy. Lives in Bristol. I hang at his place sometimes. That’s why I haven’t seen you before.’

  ‘Where are you when you’re not at Troy’s?’

  ‘I have a little place further down the reach. A few hundred yards away.’

  ‘You live here?’

  ‘On Henry’s land. Like I say, he’s very kind to me. You should come visit.’

  ‘Sure. Nothing else to do.’

  ‘Anyway. Thank you. No, really. Thank you, Adam. You’re a beautiful person. I think you could really hear what I was saying. People speak but they don’t hear. You’re different. Open.’

  She bent and kissed me on the cheek, close to the mouth. Her breath was acidic.

  ‘I should be going home. Well, I call it home. It’s . . . Henry calls it a shed, but I like to think of it as a cabin. You know he wanted me to move in here? On the boat? Yeah. You got my room. He’s worried about me. I guess we worry about each other. But I need my freedom. “The refuge of the roads”. You know? Or of the fields, or something. Well anyway . . .’

  She seemed to have finally run out of words. She gave a little bow and left the room.

  The fragrance of patchouli oil and cloves dissipated. I breathed in the air deeply, as if to retain a few particles of her within myself.

  The other smell – the iron/old-penny trace – lingered. It was, it then occurred to me, the smell of blood.

  Seven

  Over the following days, I saw little of Henry. Strawberry did not reappear. I was continuing to feel bored and restless. My lack of interest in anything at all did not even feel like a weight. A weight would have been tangible, but this was simply an absence. All the same, I had begun listlessly to attend to my studies, out of a vague sense of commitment to some undisclosed future, and a terror of ending up with Ray in the shoe shop.

  I once more made a lackadaisical attempt to unpick the causes and consequences of the First World War. Was it German aggression? Was it larger, global forces, pent up after sixty years of peace – some kind of collective blood lust?

  Or did history turn on a sixpence – on a million million sixpences? Brute, uncontrollable forces, an infinitude of tiny human decisions and an unknowable amount of blind chance. Yet I was required to pretend that there existed these invisible abstractions labelled ‘causes’ that explained it all, that made the past happen as it happened, when it happened. It made no sense to me, but I put that down to the fact that I was too stupid to work it out.

  I had hoped that Henry would have laid on some diversions for me, knowing that I was to be with him for the whole summer. But all he did was pound away on his Remington most of the day, sending tattoos of keyboard clacks skipping across the water. The taptaptap, ching, taptaptap irritated me, but I was powerless to do anything about it other than turn my music up to a level that would slightly muffle it. However, the sharpness of the taps always found their way through the prophylactic of the drum, bass, vocal and guitar with which I tried to insulate my room.

  He offered me food intermittently – lentils, salads, bread as thick, rough and brown as a solution of sandpaper and flour, and something called falafel – all of which I refused. I existed on a diet of baked beans, frankfurters from a tin, and chocolate digestives. He disappeared most afternoons in the Karmann Ghia. There was a small town – Lexham – about five miles away. Henry always offered me a lift there, which I stubbornly refused, out of motivations that were obscure to me. I suppose I equated the acceptance of generosity with the imposition of a duty.

  Henry owned a sturdy sit-up-and-beg pushbike that it was possible to navigate through the baked brown Somerset fields. One afternoon after I had been there a week, following Henry’s departure to do some shopping, I set off on the bike to the town.

  I took a grip on the ancient machine – it had the heft of a butcher’s boy’s delivery bike, old and heavy and without gears – and began pedalling across the fields towards the road that would take me into Lexham. Lexham had a population – according to the road sign that announced it – of 5031.

  I felt physically good despite my sloth and the makeshift nature of my processed-food diet. My tan had come along well, and although I wasn’t a particularly handsome boy, I wasn’t fat, or spotty. I was just unbearably average. After a few minutes’ cycling I took my T-shirt off – thin and red with flared sleeves and a tie-dye design in the shape of a circle across the chest – and pedalled furiously against the restraining gravity of my body and the bike, so that a breeze would make itself felt on my hair and skin. My cut-off jeans stretched at the seams and incubated sweat. It momentarily occurred to me that this part of England was radiant with beauty. There were tumbling expanses of deeply green fields, punctuated with constellations of daisies and buttercups and grazed by flocks of sheep and herds of cows whose only purpose seemed decorative. Under other circumstances, I hypothesized, I would have felt happy.

  When I reached the town, after forty-five minutes of hard pedalling, the sweat I had worked up left me parched. I leaned the bike against a drystone wall and inspected my surroundings. Lexham was the very epitome of a small English provincial town at that time – marinated in ancient monotony. The houses – which I could not date, merely characterize as ‘old’ – were, for the most part, laid out in terraces. There were several detached cottages with thatched roofs. On the fringes were a few clumps of modern grey council houses, all of them pebbledashed and stark.

  At the centre there was a square, overlooked by a clock set in a short tower. Clustered around the square was a collection of shops, among them a newsagent, a post office, a supermarket, a greengrocer and a butcher. There were three pubs visible. Those inhabitants that I saw – it was pretty deserted – were elderly, the women with Toni home perms and blue and pink rinses, the men in golf sweaters and polished shoes. They looked at me – inasmuch as they deigned to notice me at all – with either indifference or suspicion. I cast around for Henry’s car but it was nowhere to be seen.

  My vision was tinted by the amber Foster Grants I was wearing. They made everything seem washed with gold, or sepia. There was an old stone drinking-fountain underneath the clock tower. I pushed the worn brass button and a stream of cold water emerged from the spout. I splashed myself in the face, forgetting to take off my sunglasses and misting my lenses. I removed them, hoping that no one had noticed my gaucheness, wiped them with my T-shirt and replaced them. I drank from the spout – the water tasted of nothing. I took a cigarette out of a pack from the pocket of my jeans. They had been crushed and bent during the ride. I lit up and took a deep draught. The sensation of smoke in my mouth and lungs was noxious, but I persisted anyway, determined that this emblem of adulthood should be mastered, like my tenuous attempts to grow a moustache, which had yielded so far only a light furze, largely invisible without a magnifying mirror.

  I took a stroll around the town centre. I still failed to spot anyone younger than about thirty, other than a few squabbling little kids with sticky faces who stared at me as if I was a freak. It only took me half an hour to explore the place entirely, finding nothing of interest.

  I made my way to the newsagent. At ground level was a fly poster announcing SOMERSET FOREST FIRES – LATEST. Above the door were green panels advertising Woodbines. On the wall above, an enamel hoarding with the News of the World logo. The window held a pinboard stuck with dozens of ads – for char ladies, second-hand garden furniture, a bring-and-buy cake sale, a giant-vegetable competition.

  Inside, the counter was attended by a cheerful old biddy with gap teeth, a red scarf tied round her head and a matching nose like a radish. I bought a fresh packet of cigarettes. On a rotating magazine rack they had a few copies of old Marvel comics and I discovered an issue of Dr Strange I hadn’t read. I handed over the money for it. I still had my shirt off, but the old lady seemed oblivious to my outlaw status. She greeted me warmly, asked me if the weather was hot enough for me, and handed me my change. I mumbled a thank you and, adopting my best swa
gger, made my way out of the shop.

  It was mid-afternoon. There was an off-licence selling locally made cider, and I bought a bottle. I doubted that the slightly drunken man with a checked flat cap and a bottle of pale ale in his hand sitting on the other side of the counter believed I was eighteen, but he was clearly happy to take any money he could get. Then I sat on one of two green wooden benches on either side of the water fountain under the clock. I finished the cider off, smoked another cigarette and lay down on the struts. My head began to swim with the heat and the effects of the cider, which was almost viscous, very strong, and actually smelled of apples, unlike the mass-produced equivalent I bought in London.

  I fell asleep. Almost immediately – or so it seemed – I was woken by the sound of giggling. Opening my eyes enough to let in a crescent of light, I saw that there were two girls about my age sitting on the bench opposite, glancing at me then looking away and at one another, then glancing at me again.

  One was attractive, the other plain. They were dressed similarly – both in bib-and-brace overalls, although one was blue denim and one was white cotton. Overalls had, the previous year, made the transition from the garage forecourt to the arena of street fashion. The length of their hair was identical, down to their shoulders, and they wore short-sleeved T-shirts under the overalls. The attractive one wore the blue outfit, with black plimsolls, the plainer one what looked like school shoes, black, buckled and with a low heel.

  It was the plain one in white who noticed that I had peered out between my lids, and whispered something to her friend. I sat up and yawned. The attractive one wasn’t intimidatingly beautiful like Strawberry – her nose was snubby, slightly upended at the tip, almost porcine, and her brown hair was frizzed at the end. Whether it was styled that way or a product of split ends, I wasn’t sure. Her mouth was generous, at all four points of the compass, and her eyes, which held a glint of salacity, contained a promise that somehow you felt she would honour, under the right circumstances. The plain one wasn’t objectively that much plainer, although she was perhaps fifteen pounds heavier and ungainly. But there was a certain limp quality about her, an air of apology mixed with pique, that drained her – to my eyes at least – of any appeal. She took a pack of menthol cigarettes out of her pocket and lit one. She came over to where I was sitting and offered me the pack. She smelled of fairgrounds – candy floss, sawdust and cheap hamburgers. I shook my head. She shrugged and resumed her seat on the bench.

  I was about to get up and walk somewhere – anywhere – when the plain one, having taken a single puff on her cigarette, spoke. I noticed that she was also chewing a wad of gum which was visible, pink, when she opened her mouth.

  ‘Are you a hippy? Is that it, then? One of those hairies, is it?’

  Her voice was distinctively West Country rural, with twangs and boings quite unlike the suffocated impersonation of received pronunciation that we spoke in Yiewsley. It had a soft enough timbre, but with a whine and a taunt buried in it that set my teeth on edge.

  ‘No,’ I replied.

  Now the attractive one spoke. Her voice was different from her friend’s – more or less classless, but well modulated, with the regional accent schooled out.

  ‘There have been sightings,’ she said.

  ‘Of freaks,’ said the other one, meaningfully. ‘And weirdos.’

  ‘Makes the locals nervous.’

  ‘All the cauliflowers are up in arms. Worried about drug pushers. You’re not a drug pusher, are you?’

  ‘“Cauliflowers”?’ I said.

  ‘The white hair,’ said the well-spoken one. ‘That’s what we call the oldies. Cauliflowers.’

  ‘There’s a hippy that lives on a boat near here,’ said the plain one. ‘An old bloke. Old for a hippy, anyway. Yellow teeth.’

  ‘He’s my uncle,’ I replied, tucking my stomach in slightly. It was bulging over my too-tight cut-offs.

  This announcement brought forth coos of amazement.

  ‘You been to his boat?’ the plain one said.

  ‘I’m living on it. For the summer. I’m down from London.’

  ‘Like for a holiday?’ said the other one.

  ‘It doesn’t much feel like one.’

  ‘Are you bored?’ said Blue Boiler Suit.

  I nodded, and looked for my Foster Grants. I realized that I had been sleeping on them. I put them on, sensing immediately that they were slightly out of true.

  ‘Here, they’re all wonky,’ said Blue Boiler Suit. She took a step forward and adjusted them so they sat more evenly. It felt intimate, but I wasn’t quite sure how to escape, or even if I wanted to. She smelled of Imperial Leather soap.

  ‘They don’t like it round here,’ said Blue Boiler Suit. ‘The boat. They think it’s an eyesore. Also they say it attracts wrong sorts. They’ve got a petition up to get rid of it. I wouldn’t make yourself too comfortable. Council want him out.’

  ‘You seem to know a lot about it.’

  ‘My dad’s on the council. Why are you here anyway?’

  ‘My mother died.’

  This remark surprised me as much as it did them. I hadn’t talked about my mother to anyone. I immediately regretted it. The pretty one looked at the plain one in bewilderment.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said.

  I shrugged as if it didn’t matter. ‘My dad thought it would be good for me to get away for a while.’

  Blue Boiler Suit nodded. White Boiler Suit picked her nose. It appeared she had already lost interest. She spotted someone across the street and waved. Blue Boiler Suit, however, took a step closer to me.

  ‘Actually, that’s not quite true,’ I heard myself saying. ‘He couldn’t cope with me. I stole a car, see. Ran it into a wall. Got arrested. It was pretty bad. Yeah.’

  Blue Boiler Suit regarded me steadily. It was as if she had aged years in a moment, or changed emotional gear somehow. Instead of being a silly adolescent, she seemed suddenly adult, and genuinely concerned. Meanwhile, White Boiler Suit had started to drift off in the direction of the person she had spotted, leaving the two of us alone.

  ‘Arrested?’ said the remaining girl.

  ‘It’s all right,’ I muttered. ‘They let me off. Said I was grieving or some such rubbish.’

  ‘Well, weren’t you?’

  ‘I don’t know,’ I said. I had presumed until that moment that it was just a convenient excuse. Now it occurred to me that of course I had been grieving, and that it actually did somewhat explain my behaviour, even mitigate it to a degree. The thought came as a relief, although the relief was from the chill of a light shadow that stood at the edges of a much deeper, darker umbra.

  ‘My name’s Ash,’ said the girl, toying with the buckles on the straps that kept the front panel of her suit attached to the back.

  ‘Adam Templeton.’

  ‘OK. Well, Adam Templeton, I might see you around. It’s a pretty small world around here. Lilliput.’

  ‘Sure.’

  She turned and followed her friend in the direction of the post office, pausing once to glance back and give me a small wave, which I half-heartedly returned, before she rejoined her friend and a third girl roughly the same age.

  It was yet another scrap of narrative without meaning or consequence. Since my mother had died, I had mentally categorized all events in this fashion – disconnected, purposeless, isolated and leading to nothing in particular.

  I bought another bottle of cider from the man in the flat cap, who seemed to have sobered up slightly, because this time he asked my age. However, he accepted my lie without demur and handed over the bottle. I briskly necked the contents and fell asleep again. When I woke, I had a headache. The town centre was deserted and the sun was setting. There were no lights on the bike. I started to worry that I would run out of daylight. Shakily – the cider had made me feel drowsy and somewhat nauseous – I took a last swig of water from the fountain, mounted the bike and headed back towards the boat.

  I cycled as hard as I could,
but by the time I got to the track through the trees, the light had gone. From what little there was, I could see cracks in the dry ground, like veins and roots pushing out, like scattered bones. I started to make my way towards the mooring as a complete darkness descended with a discomfiting rapidity. I began to feel slightly anxious, although rationally I was in no danger. I could just about feel the relative smoothness of the dirt track under the wheels, but there was little else to guide me. There were no stars, no moon.

  I was not used to such blackness and was beginning to panic. Apart from the not very realistic possibility that I would get lost, my imagination started to play up. What kind of animals were there in these woods? What kind of people? The darkness made me feel naked, and vulnerable.

  I dismounted the bike – the going was getting too heavy, and I was scared of colliding with something I couldn’t see. I dropped it and started to run – at a jog at first, then faster. I could hear creaking noises – presumably branches in the wind. Animals moved in the undergrowth. In the distance I heard a cry like a baby being throttled. I imagined it was a mating fox, but still, it was an uncanny sound.

  I felt something strike me in the face, and I fell back, clutching at my cheeks. It was clear from the sticky wetness there that I had been cut. Even as it dawned on me that I had simply walked into a sharp branch, I felt a nausea of terror rise up in me. I could hear the screeching of a bird that I didn’t recognize, and sudden movements in the undergrowth. Almost crying now, I started walking again in what I hoped was the right direction. But I was lost, somehow, lost and blind in the dark. The howling of the fox continued, and I could feel my hand wet with blood. I had no idea how badly I might have cut myself.

  I hit what appeared to be a hedge of some sort, which proved to be impenetrable. I turned and started back the way I’d come, where I thought I had left the bike, but I couldn’t see it.

  I saw a light coming towards me. Instead of reassuring me, it frightened me further. Why was there a light in the middle of this darkness? Who or what was behind it? The fox wailed again. I pressed myself against a tree, as if it might make me safer from whatever was out there.

 
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