The last summer of the w.., p.8
The Last Summer of the Water Strider, p.8Tim Lott
I could hear footfall across dry leaves now. I felt like running, but I had no idea where to run. I held my breath. Then I heard a voice.
I jumped from behind the tree into the beam of a torch. It was Henry.
I was panting, my chest heaving with relief, mixed almost immediately with shame. I had been scared – of nothing, I now realized.
‘The dark in the countryside takes a little getting used to. I should have given you a flashlight,’ Henry said mildly. ‘The boat’s over here. Only a few hundred yards.’
There was no hint of mockery in his voice. He just seemed pleased to see me. I followed him silently back to the boat. It was, sure enough, no more than a two-minute walk, albeit through the blackness of the wood. The Ho Koji glowed welcomingly in the darkness. As I got closer, I could smell the scent of cooking – herbs and meat and wine. I was immensely grateful that he wasn’t making a fuss.
When we entered, Henry turned to me. His stance was open, as if he expected me to hug him. I almost did, but somehow Ray’s words came back to me and acted as a brake. Why are you always grabbing people, Henry? Instead, I slumped on to the bench under the porthole. Henry just smiled again, and asked me if I wanted some food. I nodded. He served me up something I had never tasted before, which turned out to be boeuf bourgignon.
I stared at it, but this time without resentment. Then I picked up the spoon he had given me and wolfed it down hungrily, consuming it in great gulps. It tasted very good. Henry poured me a glass of red wine and I drank that too, with gusto, despite the remnants of my hangover.
We sat in silence through the meal together, but it was a silence that, for the first time, contained an element of truce. Henry did nothing to force the point – neither stretching for conversation nor remarking on my uncharacteristic acceptance of his meal. After a while, he simply rose and bade me goodnight. A few minutes later, I could hear the sound of his typewriter keys once more, but this time, instead of irritating me, I found it comforting, like the introduction of punctuation into a sprawling, formless sentence.
The next day, I awoke late even by my standards – around 11 a.m. Henry’s office door was open, so I glanced in. He was sitting as usual at the table, punching the keys on his Remington, wearing only a pair of underpants. Clack, clack, ching. He stopped typing and started fussing with the ribbon, cursing mildly in an American vernacular – ‘Goshdarnit goddam helluva pieceashit.’ Sensing me at the door, he stopped, looked up, gave me a friendly nod and, having apparently fixed the problem, resumed typing. It was clear he was focused on what he was doing and wanted no interruption.
I made myself a cup of coffee – Henry-style, thick and black with drumlins of sugar – and returned to my room. I resentfully eyeballed the pile of school textbooks, scribbled-in notepads and dummy exam papers that reproached me from the plastic bag in the corner.
It was too overcast to sunbathe. I didn’t feel like going into town again. I had hardly lifted a finger to work on my retake since I had arrived at the boat, supposing that I would eventually find myself ‘in the mood’. But I began to realize that such a mood was unlikely to manifest itself without my lowering the barricades of determined indolence. I picked up the textbook that happened to be sticking out of the top of the bag, opened it and began to read. Negotiating each sentence was like ascending a steep hill with a heavy backpack and a painful stitch in the abdomen.
The causes of the Great War were listed and annotated with numbers in a summary section at the end of the book. I decided to make a start by trying to memorize the list. I picked up a biro, took out a blank notebook and began copying them, in the hope that it might give me some material to regurgitate when I reached the examination room.
Britain and Germany were involved in a naval competition. The scramble for Africa. The system of alliances. The ideology of nationalism among the great powers. Instability in the Balkans caused by the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the liberation movements of smaller proto-nations. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. This latter, I dutifully read, was the spark that brought on the whole conflagration.
Henry appeared at my open door, a cigarette burned down to the filter in his hand. He was now dressed in what appeared to be a Japanese kimono. The sleeves could easily have held half-a-dozen arms.
‘What’s the topic?’
‘First World War.’
‘“Lions led by donkeys.” All that jazz.’
I put the book down, yawning. Henry squatted beside me, picked the book up and began flicking casually through it.
‘What do you make of it?’ he asked.
‘What does anyone make of it? It happened. There’s a list of why it happened. Now I have to learn it.’
‘Why do think you have to learn it?’ said Henry. ‘Other than to pass the exam.’
‘Is there another reason?’
I paused for a moment, and took a sip of my coffee. It had cooled and now tasted vaguely medicinal.
‘So that it never happens again,’ I said.
‘That’s the theory. That’s the point of history. So they say.’
‘I suppose so.’
‘Do you believe that?’
Henry nodded, put down the book. Then he seemed to dismiss the subject.
‘I’m going into town in half an hour or so. Want a lift? We could get a cake at the tea shop. You might see your new friend.’
‘Which new friend is that?’
‘Ashley Toshack. Known around these parts as Ash.’
I tried and failed to look unsurprised.
‘I’m afraid this is a small place. I know her father rather well. The Very Reverend Wesley Toshack. Vicar of this parish. Also a property developer, councillor and all-round pillar of the community. Upstanding man. Or so it’s said. We have some lively discussions. I bumped into him in Lexham yesterday, right before I set off home. He mentioned that his daughter had met my nephew. I have no idea why he felt it was sufficiently interesting to warrant a mention, but doubtless there was some deeper motive behind it.’
‘Perhaps it’s because the council want you off the boat.’
Now it was Henry’s turn to be taken aback.
‘You know about that?’
‘I’m afraid this is a small place.’
‘Are they going to throw you off?’
‘They’ve started a petition. But I’ve heard nothing from the council. And actually, the main threat is not from the council but the church commissioners. They own the land, as a matter of fact. The council are in cahoots. They’re biding their time. Anyway, I’m resourceful, I know my way around the law. Trouble is, all this wrangling is keeping me away from my book. It’s so time-consuming.’
‘What would happen if they succeeded in getting you out?’
Henry looked surprised, as if he had never considered this possibility.
‘They won’t. They have no grounds. Typically enough, they’re brandishing the cudgel of morality. Toshack and his brigade of “concerned local citizens” have spent a lot of time combing through the small print of my lease, and discovered somewhere on page gazillion, subsection nine hundred and ninety-one, clause F, paragraph four – or something like that – that it demands I behave in a “lawful and upright manner” and “conduct myself at all times with due decorum and appropriate responsibility”.
‘Just because I’ve had a few parties down here – which the locals naturally assume quickly develop into drug-addled orgies – they think they can sling me out. But they have no evidence whatsoever. The police have raided on more than one occasion – again, no doubt thanks to Toshack – but have found nothing other than a few empty cases of, admittedly poor-quality, wine.’
‘Is Ash on her dad’s s
‘Ashley is bored. Everyone’s bored around here. Most of them have forgotten how bored they are, though.’
‘So I’m not alone.’
‘Oh no. You are very much participating in the local zeitgeist, so to speak. But be careful. You’d be surprised what they do in order to ease the weight of all that piled-up tedium. Particularly the young ones.’
‘Is that some kind of warning?’
‘I don’t know much about Ash. She probably not so bad really. Some of the boys around here call her “Ash the Pash”. She’s quite widely fancied.’
‘More than that. A red-hot chilli pepper. But don’t get any ideas. She’s a Bible basher. Just likes to play it down. Very keen on her father. Quite the daddy’s girl. Mother died six, seven years ago. They’re close. And Wesley is not my biggest fan, so Ashley probably lines up on his side.’
‘Why? What did you do? Apart from live on a houseboat.’
‘The worst thing a man can do to another man around here.’
‘Made him feel foolish. And, as I said, he doesn’t like some of the company I attract. I think that was the real reason he buttonholed me. To truffle-hunt for information. I’m having a bit of an, um, event down here in a couple of weeks, and he’s hoping we’re all going to be dancing naked around the campfire and handing out peyote to minors. Chance would be a fine thing! He’d love that, because it would give him further grounds for litigation. But I know the rules, and I’ll stick by them.’
‘What if they did get enough evidence to throw you off?’
Henry stared out of the window. His eyes took on a faraway look.
‘I would have nothing, I suppose. This is the only home I have. I can’t just sail it away and moor it somewhere else. Moorings are hard to find, and expensive. Plus I’m sure this old bucket would sink if you tried to take it anywhere.’
‘My father always told me you had plenty of money.’
‘Raymond thinks I’m Daddy Warbucks. That’s because I have a few old friends in the banking business, and I can raise loans easily enough. Have done in the past, and always made them pay. So my credit is good. But in terms of real cash, I’ve got next to nothing. I can live here because there are no expenses. I mean, the insurance is fierce – because the Ho Koji is made of wood they say it’s a fire risk, which I suppose is fair enough – but other than that, since I own the lease on the land, there is nothing to pay apart from the peppercorn ground rent. I live on my wits and what practical skills I have. Also Strawberry sometimes gives me a few coins for letting her sleep in the cabin.’
‘I’ve not seen anything of her recently.’
‘She’s been staying in Bristol with Troy for a while, but she’ll be back. Sometimes she earns a little money – busking or waitressing. She always tries to give something to me. Which I accept largely so that she doesn’t feel indebted to me. But it’s all hand to mouth.’
‘How about the Karmann?’
‘A gift from a friend. Well, not so much a gift. The man owed me money and he didn’t have any, so he gave me the car. Which was worth about a quarter of his debt. Still, it was better than nothing. Talking of Strawberry – I understand she dropped in to see you the other day.’
‘Something of a compliment. She’s usually slow to “reach out” – as they like to say in California. What did you make of her?’
‘She’s too thin.’
‘She smelled of blood.’
‘Probably that time of month. She doesn’t believe in tampons or sanitary towels. Uses moss or leaves or something. Anything that comes to hand. Tree bark, I shouldn’t wonder. Unsanitary towels, I call them. She just bleeds. Lets it return to the earth. Claims that menstrual blood is good for the soil.’
I felt discomfited by this revelation. I had very little knowledge of female anatomy or biological processes. My mother and father had never talked about it, and such matters were not mentioned at school or addressed on television.
‘She looks like she’d break easily.’
‘Now there you’re entirely wrong. Strawberry is very, very strong. She has the most remarkable will-power. Nothing will divert her from her path once she’s set on it. I admire her greatly, although I certainly don’t agree with all her choices. But then, mistakes are a kind of fertilizer for good decisions, which will come as the seasons change. The thing is to keep moving forward. The Zen masters say, “Go left or go right, but don’t dither.”’
He checked his watch.
‘On the subject of dithering, I need to be going, and I still have to get changed. Are you coming?’
‘I’m meant to be studying.’
‘Who was it said, “History is bunk”?’
‘There you are. From the great man’s mouth. Your lift leaves in five minutes, if you want it.’
This time, I wasn’t difficult to convince. I pulled on my baseball boots. When Henry reappeared he was wearing white linen pyjamas – ‘everyday wear in Rishikesh’. I followed him out on to the deck and over to the Karmann Ghia. When we reached it, I felt Henry’s hand resting on my shoulder.
‘Can you drive?’
‘No. Well – I can. I just don’t have a licence. I’ve driven my dad’s Anglia round the local gasworks, though. And I stole a car once after my mum died and crashed it.’
I hoped Henry would be intrigued by this and eager to hear the story of my escapades, but he remained impassive. It occurred to me that Ray had probably told him all about my exploits anyway.
‘Why don’t you give the Ghia a spin?’
‘Not at all.’
‘That didn’t stop you before, apparently. Anyway, it’s not illegal in my field. I own the lease on everything from here to the fence.’ He gestured towards the enclosed perimeter, maybe half a mile away. ‘Beyond that, guess who the land belongs to?
‘The government? The Church?’
‘You’re close. Wesley Toshack. God knows how many acres he’s bought up around here. I’m like a little sore, a pimple on the chin of his empire. He doesn’t like it. Cut off his access to the river, where all the most valuable land is.’
‘Valuable for what?’
‘House-building. This stretch I hold the lease on is one of the few patches of soil on the river suitable for construction. For some weird topographic reason, this part of the river seems immune from floods. He could make a fortune if he could get hold of the land. And there would be nothing to stop him if the lease was rendered invalid. He’s tried to buy me up several times. That’s why he never quite gets round to threatening me. Because he thinks he can schmooze me. But I won’t sell. It’s my home. Also there’s the matter of Strawberry.’
‘What’s Strawberry got to do with it?’
‘As I said, she lives here. She has nowhere else to go. And I’ve kind of adopted her. She visits Troy, but that’s on his good will. See that patch of trees? Standing a little higher than the rest?’ He pointed to a line of beech trees around a quarter of a mile from the mooring. ‘Behind that is her little shack. No running water or electricity. Really just a shed. But it’s dry, and livable in the summer. There’s a bed in there, and a primus stove for cooking and heating water. Strawberry’s been ensconced there since the spring – that’s when she came over from America. I keep asking her to come and stay on the boat. It’s very isolated out there. But as I said, she’s stubborn. She wants to get back to nature, she says. If my boat isn’t back to nature, I don’t know what is. Not close enough for her, though. She cultivates a vegetable garden, although all it’s produced so far is a couple of potatoes, a carrot and a handful of radishes. So much for the properties of menstrual blood on the soil.
‘She sits in there and
I was only half listening, so enthralled was I by the prospect of driving the car. I climbed into the driving seat. I understood that manipulating the clutch was the hardest part, so I felt with my feet for it. But there were only two pedals.
‘It’s an automatic,’ said Henry. ‘Just an accelerator and a brake.’
I pressed my foot gently on the accelerator. The car lurched forward. Henry laughed as we both flew backwards. I tried again, more gently. This time, the car inched ahead.
I moved the wheel to the left slightly, and the car began to move towards the field gate. I pressed the accelerator again. We started to move at about five miles an hour. Without asking for any permission from Henry, I began to accelerate. He said nothing. All he did was reach up and crank a handle above our head. The sun roof creaked open. Air and light poured through the gap.
I stopped in front of the gate. Henry got out. I expected him to take over, but he simply opened the gate so that I could manoeuvre the car on to the empty track. Henry shut the gate behind him and climbed back into the passenger seat. We were off his land. I glanced at him, still presuming he was going to take over. But he said nothing, just looked straight ahead.
Surprised by both my recklessness and Uncle Henry’s indifference, I pushed the accelerator a little harder. Now we were moving along at twenty miles per hour. Henry began to hum a tune to himself. I recognized it as an old song, Donovan’s ‘Sunshine Superman’.
It was several minutes before we saw another car. I had reached the road proper and needed to give way. A blue Ford Escort drove cautiously across our path. I raised a hand in acknowledgement, enjoying the gesture for its premonition of the privileges of adulthood.
The country road stretched away in front of us. A warm rush of wind splayed my hair in front of my eyes, and I found enough confidence to brush it away, leaving me momentarily one-handed on the wheel. Henry remained unconcerned. He seemed to believe absolutely that I was able to drive, and his belief somehow made it possible.
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