The white house on the corner had been the village inn, as Ariel remembered it. Now it was someone’s home. There were flowers on the forecourt where benches and tables once stood – that same someone had built a low wall around the flowers and lavished it with white render, butter-thick. The old inn sign with its painting of a barge was gone; its bracket, carelessly daubed with splashes of white paint still clung to the front of the house, naked and neglected. Reluctantly, as it seemed, the new owners had permitted one sign to remain, hanging from their pristine gable end. ‘The Marina’ it said, and waved a wind-stirred finger into Basin Lane. Ariel followed it, her hand sweeping lazily over the steering wheel, for she knew this turning well.
Leaving the village street behind, she felt herself plunging, almost tumbling, back into her past. In this hired car she was driving along a country lane she had walked very many times; amid choirs of humming bees, hedges rich with white flumes of cow parsley, garlands of campion and wild rose. A short mile with sun on her face, or sun in her heart?
A bow-wave of memories washed before her, threatening tears as hired metal savaged the overgrowth, wheels bucked over wrinkled tarmac, around narrow bend after narrow bend.
And one final bend.
As the curve unwound high hedges like drapes were suddenly swept apart to reveal the old weathered gate, as always, hanging open; inviting access to that rough dolomite rectangle Abel could never be persuaded to finally lay to concrete. There was no sign: the visitor might as well turn here – Basin Lane led nowhere beyond this. Customers’ cars strewn, rather than parked, in woeful disorder: fewer than she remembered. And the path which was the final part of her journey, carving a way down through tangles of columbine and nettle to the boatyard and the canal.
Ariel parked up alongside a gaunt blue Range Rover of uncertain years. She drew a deep breath, seeking inside herself for the same vitality that once had filled her lungs on her every visit here without need for invitation. The intoxication was not as it had been. She felt its loss acutely – what had happened here? Not the neglect; the charisma of Abel’s touch had never reached as far from the water as this, but the sadness! There was no other word to describe it, she thought. What once had seemed carefree was now heavy with care – the wild hedge and sedge that once danced and rustled in a mischievous breeze now huddled for shelter from raking gusts of air that were hostile and chill. The day was warm enough, so why did Ariel shudder before that wind; was there something deeper in her soul than mere apprehension at seeing him again? Was the wrong she had done to him here, hanging on the air of this place like a pall – hanging over her head like a judgement? ‘Abel, I’m sorry, I should have stayed with you.’ She rehearsed the speech in her head, the words she would never really say. She finished aloud:
“I should never have left.”
Standing to stretch cramped muscles, she glimpsed the high roof of the boat house peeping above a weed forest. Its presence reassured her, gave her courage, even eagerness, to descend the path.
Twenty yards, no more; careful to avoid wasps milling around a discarded carton oozing something red and sweet, wondering with every step what changes, if any, she would find and hoping her foreboding was wrong and there would be none; the grey concrete with the wooden boat house that stood in defiance of change at its head, the veranda with its ancient steamer chair that had been her source of comfort on many a hot summer noon, the little row of jetties with maybe a narrow boat or two tethered between, the reflective calm of the old canal sleeping darkly beyond? So short was the path she could not be kept waiting long. In a few tentative paces that familiar vista was spread before her and yes, all that was old seemed substantially the same, if a little more weed-bestrewn and somewhat smaller than matched her recollection. But it did not stand alone.
So he had built it at last! Her heart rejoiced!
The house was new – single-storey, low and sleek. Sliding windows open to their vista of the canal, newly painted frames and doors glistened faultlessly in the glare of sun. It was not large, as houses go: its green tiled roof, its modest glazing, even the rise of three steps which aligned it with the boathouse, spoke of modest practicality that was so unmistakably Abel.
And here too, when at last she could tear her eyes away from this most surprising of additions to the boatyard and cast about her, was Abel! She started; unprepared, though heaven knew she should have been, to see him straightaway. She had envisaged seeking him out, entering the cool dark of the boathouse, or checking the cabin of a solitary narrow boat tethered to one of the jetties. But no, he was here, in open view.
Clad in once-white overalls he was painting antifouling onto a hauled-up river cruiser of a kind she knew he hated and she had no doubt it was he, though his back was turned, by the square set of his shoulders, by the firm plant of his feet upon the ground. Why had she travelled so far, not really believing she might find him so easily, or find him at all?
Approaching him, taking these last few steps, might be the most difficult of her life. He straightened as she drew near, sensing her presence, but he did not turn around.
“It took you long enough.” Abel said. Those softly-spoken vowels, that imperturbable drawl.
She could not imagine he would recognise her step after so long, so had he mistaken her for someone else? “I know.” Ariel dug deeply to discover her voice. “I had…things to do.”
She moved to stand beside him – to his left, as she always had, which suddenly seemed so natural to her, as if in a few steps she could make the years vanish, slip back into the envelope of her past. “You built the house,” She said.
“Ten years.” He replied, inducing a flutter in her heart. Without so much as a glance, head known it was she? The years, the months, the days: had he been counting them too?
“Is it that?” She struggled again to find words. “Yes, I suppose it is.” She said.
“I thought you were coming back after lunch.”
Ariel smiled a smile that expressed the breeze of contentment she felt; and she turned tear-filled eyes to feast upon Abel’s remembered face, praying she would see her happiness reflected there. What had she hoped; that he would be exactly as she remembered – that same humour, that same tacit, complacent grin? Her imagination danced! He had missed her when she did not return, missed her so badly that he had taken time to consider those things which, whilst once they drew her to him, had finally sent her away. And he had built the house! In her heart she wished, she hoped, she prayed. Had he built it for her, prepared with that eternal patience of his to wait forever if necessary, in case she returned to him?
Then she looked deeper and saw there was more than hope in his face – there was pain.. She saw the change in him.
He was older, of course; his wind-harrowed skin etched and stretched by winters of frost and summer heat, but it was no fierce attack upon his featuress, this weathering, for compared to some the canals were a gentle mistress. No, it was not a history of seasons that she could trace in his lean features. It was a ghost. He read her concern. “Lot of things different.” He said.
The relaxed, easy drawl of his younger voice was the same, but there was a tension, even a bitterness behind those eyes. She bit a lip that threatened to quiver. “What happened, Abel?” She nodded to the glass fibre boat he was working on. “What are you doing with this? You used to despise these things.”
“Steel boats are expensive now, and there’s some can’t afford the tariff.” Abel slapped a brushful of paint at the exposed hull. “It wasn’t a good investment, believe me. The bloody thing cracks like an egg if it gets in a collision. I’m forever repairing it.”
“You haven’t answered me. What happened?”
He made no immediate reply but continued with his painting, as if he were searching for an answer that would satisfy, and yet keep his private truth concealed. At last he said: “Dad died, seven years ago. I had to close his yard, it was too expensive and there was no way I could keep two running. He had debts, you see. We sold two of the boats to shoulder that, and then a couple of winters ago we got more rain than Noah could have coped with. The river burst its banks up at Chalferton and overflowed into the canal system. It did a lot of damage. The navigation’s still closed up at Handyard’s Lock, so we’re just on a branch, for a while.” He smiled, but only with his lips. “A few misfortunes, really.”
She said gently: “It’s good to see you, Abe.”
“And you.” He nodded tersely. “You married, I heard it said. To a rich American, was the word about. What brings you back here?”
“Yes, I was married, for a while.” Ever since her flight had left New York she had wondered how she would answer just this question. She could claim she needed to visit her parents, anxious for her father in his advancing years – or maybe she needed to put distance between her and the man she was leaving. There was some truth in that. New York had crowded her, the rush and hustle of city streets made her frightened and the pace of each day tore her inner peace – that precious peace she knew with Abel – into shreds. Could she tell him the truth she had denied to herself; that her journey was really to find him: how much she had missed him, thought of him, worried for him every day for ten years? And now she was standing at his side, how could she tell him all she wanted was to fall into his arms?
“I’m not married now.” Ariel murmured, half to herself. “Or I won’t be, in another three weeks.” She forced herself to meet Abel’s eyes. “We both have sad stories, don’t we?”
“Looks like it.” He matched her stare. “It didn’t work out, then?”
“It isn’t his fault. His work takes him away for weeks at a time. But me and the big city? I’ve been on my own a lot, these last ten years.”
He grunted. “Seems like you should have stayed, then maybe things would have turned out better.”
“You never asked me to. That was all you had to do – ask. I would have stayed.” It was all she could manage to keep the tremor from her voice. Why hadn’t he asked? For all the years they had spent together they had been fast friends, and he must have known how much she loved him, yet he had never given her cause to hope he cared for her in return. She drew a breath, saying; “I’m sorry about your Dad. I always liked him.”
“Yes, he was a miserable old bugger, but he had his ways. It’s a pity one of them wasn’t writing cheques.” Abel frowned, avoiding her gaze. “It really is good to see you.” He repeated, as if he was striving for sincerity. He had thought her his friend, believed they would always have that closeness, and he wanted so badly to say how he had missed her, and tell her of the betrayal he felt when she left without warning, left when he needed her most. All these things he might say, but could never say, now or then. “Are you staying in the village?”
“No. Mum and Dad moved to Frebsham five years back; but then you’ll know about that.”
“I did hear. Forty miles. That’s a long way.”
‘Like another universe to you’, Ariel thought. “I’ll maybe stay in town for a couple of days.” She said; and then, when he made no reply, but was still, and remote, lost inside himself: “Look, you’re busy…”
“What will you do now – stay in England? I mean, if you’re divorced…”
She smiled faintly. “Not quite. Not yet. I’ll have to fly back, to finalise things, you know? I’ll maybe look for a job up Frebsham way; I don’t know.”
“Well, while you’re here you must stay for lunch. I’ll get cleaned up…”
“No!” She said it too quickly, bit back on the word. “I mean, no, thank you. I ought to get back to town, get booked in somewhere. It’s the high season…”
“We were friends!” He blurted out. “We were friends most of our lives, you and I!”
“Yes, I know; and we’re strangers now. My fault – all my fault. I should have been there when you needed… I just wanted something – I don’t know; something more, I suppose.”
How had she believed a reunion could succeed where the past had failed? Yet she was sure that love was there, and still she hoped – hoped to hear the staccato fracture of ice; to have him reach for her, take her in his arms and make the world come right! For all her pride, she could not conceal the plea in her eyes, or dare to speak, lest her voice should give her away.
“Lunch in twenty minutes!” It was a call from the boathouse. “Abey you demon, you’ve got company! Why didn’t you say? Shall I lay for three?”
A figure stood, fresh-faced and smiling, in the door of the boathouse, with one hand against the jamb.
“No, she isn’t staying!” Abel called back. And to her: “It’s a pity, though. Peter’s a lovely chap. We’ve been together three years now. I’m sure you’d like him.”
At that instant, Ariel’s eyes were drawn towards the cool waters of the canal. For a second, no more, sunlight flickered on the blue iridescent flight of a kingfisher.
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content