The Insect

The Insect

Sometimes the span of a lifetime is needed to make an assessment of people.

Provincial – that defined Tark’s self-image in the early nineteen-sixties.  An insurance clerk with artistic pretensions and a deeply dissatisfied perspective upon his small-town existence, he had convinced himself of one thing; his destiny was to devote his life to art, however confused he was about the direction his artistry should take.   A short-lived stint as a junior reporter on a short-lived local newspaper had punctured his faith in his ability as a writer.  His capacity for clearing a room when he sang, coupled with absolute incomprehension of the finger-skills needed to master an instrument seemed to eliminate a future in music.   Those inclined to criticize were apt to say he lacked even a hint of talent.  In his own mind he was a genius waiting to flower – at something.

Blagging being as prevalent in the nineteen-sixties as it is today, if Tark’s parcel of ineptitudes had been wrapped in a more presentable package with a greater sense of style he might yet have passed as ‘gifted’, but Tark’s assets were buried deep, tilthed over by a six-feet-one stick insect’s  body and supported on legs so bony even drainpipe jeans struggled for grip.   His feet, sized fourteen and shaped like spades, were equally ill-equipped for a generation which saw toes as an obscenity and punished them by thrusting them into ‘winklepicker’ shoes.  Tark persevered with a cheap black pair which reshaped with time into something resembling a pair of rearward-facing armadillos, complete with tails.

 His appearance was of an under-confident, slightly spotty example of ‘modern youth’.  If he was ready to flower he showed very little sign of doing so.  The only buds he exhibited were red and topped with white blisters.

Given such ammunition, Tark’s low self-esteem manifested itself in aggressive responses to any number of situations; repressed silence at parties, inarticulate rudeness when confronted and on his rare voyages into the everyday a slouching gait along the pavements of the town, studying his  reflection in each shop window as he passed.

Which was how he bumped into Natalie.  He wasn’t looking where he was going, nor was she; maybe they were sharing the same shop window, she from one direction, he from the other.  Their heads met with a noise befitting a cricket analogy; leather on willow.

“Ouch!”  Natalie explored her forehead with tentative fingers.  “Why don’t you look where you’re going?”

Terrified she would bleed, Tark launched into a profuse apology which reached crescendo with an offer of coffee, an obvious solution as the next window belonged to a coffee bar.

Natalie conceded.  “I was going in there anyway.  You’re buying.”

Those two words (‘you’re buying’) Tark subsequently discovered, were intrinsic to Natalie’s survival as a student.  It was a habit she never broke.

From such unpromising beginnings, great things are often born.  They introduced themselves; he discovered she liked Danish pastries.  She was studying Fine Art at the local art college, finishing her course after her parents had moved away, so she was living in digs.  Her evenings were in need of filling and she had thought of Amdram – did he know anybody?  It so happened he did.

Although he wasn’t aware of it at the time, that meeting was the point at which Tark’s world began to expand.  There were few immediate signs; this slightly ungainly girl, not classically good-looking, but with an engagingly expressive face and serious eyes, seemed interested in him at a point when he believed he was the least interesting person on Earth.  While they were visiting the coffee bar, she also appeared to be interested in a wild-looking and very hairy student who sat at another table.  As she left the coffee bar she crossed to the wild-looking student’s table where money was covertly exchanged for a small packet.

That was one thing Tark wasn’t buying.

Within a week the lump on Natalie’s forehead had subsided, Tark had joined a drama club, spent an evening watching Jacques Tati movies and learned there were things in the world to smoke other than tobacco.  Within a month their friendship had become very close – that was Tark’s impression, anyway.  One evening he asked her if she would like him to pose as her life model.  

She looked at him oddly.   “I mostly do landscapes…but if you want?”

Winter came, the Amdram turned into a production, prompting an odd flatterer or two to suggest Tark should go to drama school, but he was vaguely uncomfortable with the authenticity of the praise.  Nevertheless he sought some artistic outlet and his typing was still abominable, so he stretched a few muscles and read a bit of Stanislavski.  Natalie continued to paint.  His uncertainty was not a failing she shared.

For all the increasing security and depth of their friendship, Natalie drew one very firm line:  sex was out.   Nudity fazed her not one jot, she liked shedding the restriction of clothing and was happy for Tark to do the same as long as he would not  interpret that small permissiveness as anything more.  Her career, she would insist, was everything.  She could not risk the accident of pregnancy, so, although those around them might make assumptions, and though they often spent days and nights together, they maintained an awkward celibacy:  awkward, at least, from Tark’s point of view:  it fed into his bubbling cauldron of anger.

One spring evening they were sitting in the garden of Tark’s family home; Natalie had her sketch pad with her, doing quick studies of whatever took her eye at the time, while Tark tried to describe his only encounter with a ruby-tailed wasp.  He must have failed dismally in the attempt because she suddenly pushed her pad onto his knee.

“Draw it.”

Was that a moment of revelation?   Did the magic memory of his meeting with that unusual creature transfer itself to paper?  When he had finished he stared at his effort and his effort stared back.  All his miserable, self-deprecating hostility glared from the fudged lines.  At first he tried to hide his abysmal effort, but Natalie was not to be so deceived.   She snatched the pad from his hand.

“It speaks to me,”  she said.

“It was only an insect,”  He replied humbly.  

“Oh, it’s much more than that.”

The insect, of course, was Tark; how he saw himself – how he was, very possibly.  If Natalie saw that too, she was far too polite to say so.

So, no revelation, then; yet a crumb to tempt him to see through the superficial self-image he had built for himself to something far more genuine.  Natalie forced that to happen, not by encouragement, just by her example.  Matters had moved forward; if he wanted to be around her he had to conform; he had to contribute.  To be with her was to see the world as an artist would see it – as she saw it.  He had to add something interesting of his own to earn her approval.

Tark found focus.  Every waking moment when he wasn’t engaged in clerkery was filled with things to sketch, different media to try, exploration of methods, foraging for board, or scavenging for paints.  Now that he and Natalie shared a new affinity, techniques fascinated him.  Although he felt hopelessly dwarfed by her talent, he had found somebody at whose feet he was willing to study.  For the first time in his life he had some sense of direction.

They began working together, painting scenery for the Amdram group’s next production.  He began to develop a plan for much more, telling himself they might have a life together, sharing a workshop, a studio, perhaps a partnership.   In retrospect he might have been better advised to share his vision with Natalie, but he didn’t.  Not then.

The aspect of his new companion’s personality that he never fully understood or equalled was the depth of her unswervable determination.  She fed it into her work, so every stroke of her brush was a conversation with the medium, and little of her dialogue with Tarq on those occasions had any significance at all.   From the most basic exchanges:

Tarq:   “Shall I get lunch?

Natalie:  “Wonderful.”

Tarq:    “What would you like?”

Natalie:   “You choose…”

To the more serious issues:

Tarq:   “We could set up a studio together!”

Natalie: “ That sounds like an idea.”

Tarq:     “I’ll look into it, then.”

Natalie:  “Why don’t you?”

He would get food in and she would ignore it. He was too broke to pursue the idea of a studio, which was fortunate, because she never mentioned it again.

That same vagueness pervaded everything in Natalie’s life other than the journey of paint from brush to canvas, so Tark should not have been surprised when, at the conclusion of her college course she announced that she intended to stay on for another year.

“I’m not ready for London yet.  I’ve more to learn.”

What could he deduce from this; should he be encouraged?  Natalie was always reticent, never gave reasons willingly, but he believed, poor mortal, that she was staying for him.

Come their second summer, Tarq had convinced himself enough of their relationship to take some first tentative steps towards a life with Natalie.   After all, had it not endured for almost two years?  They worked together whenever possible and he began evening classes at her college, through which he discovered a penchant for pottery.  With determination unusual for him, he persuaded his parents to part with money for a wheel and a small kiln.   Given the opportunity he would have discovered the many shortcomings of being wedded to clay – even his own mother kept her distance – but by good fortune or bad the issues of grey sludge spread no further than his room, because a week later Natalie had an announcement to make.

“I’m going to France.”

Tark’s first response was gaping disbelief, “What?”

“Jenna, Toms and Becs are putting a trip together.  Toms has a studio down there, near Cavalaire-sur-Mer, I think he said.  Oh, and Tazza’s coming – probably.”

Tark’s second response was;  “When?”

“Monday, if we can get a ferry.”

“For how long?”

“The summer.  We might stay on.  I don’t know.”  Natalie added, lamely, “Come, if you like?”

A year since, such a move would have been beyond Tark’s comprehension, but his love for this strange, enigmatic girl had altered him enough to reply hesitantly:  “Okay.”

“Alright, then, I suppose.  We’re all putting in.”

Didn’t it, you might ask, occur to Tark to question Natalie’s willingness to leave him behind?   How did he channel the anger he felt?   Secretly, in his clay-spattered room; and being insufficiently skilled to express himself by throwing a pot, he banged a board onto his easel and threw paint at that instead, expelling whole tubes of colour, splashing at it with slip clay for good measure.   Then he took another board and did the same, and another until he had no more paint, and no more board, and no more desire ever – ever- to become an artist.

Yet he still went to France.

He was broke: paints were expensive, brushes too.  So he sold his potter’s wheel and his kiln to pay his passage.   He endured an uncomfortable van journey in ever-increasing heat with a bunch of art students he barely knew, because although he could forgo the art, he could not be separated from the artist.  His feelings had rooted themselves too deeply.

Natalie took to the South of France with alacrity, Tark stuck to her like a second skin, at first.   There were necessary changes.   Toms owned their apartment, so rent was not a consideration.  Food though, and materials; they had to be paid for.  Toms mysteriously popped up with both from time to time, though not reliably: the company had to earn money, if only to eat.    Becs spoke French fluently, and with the tourist season in full swing, quickly found work.  Toms found evening jobs for himself and Tark at a local supermarche.   Natalie painted obsessively, Tazza sat in a corner and played guitar.   Jenna?  Well, Jenna found hotel work, but Jenna was ‘with’ Toms.   

With the resilience of the young, the group adapted to their new situation, which on the surface seemed idyllic.   Toms was one of the Art College tutors and Jenna was a student, so the others were there to lend some propriety to a very inappropriate relationship.   Becs, a darkly introspective girl with pretensions as a portrait painter, spent most of her days sketching any tourist with a wallet, Tazza, who declared himself a musician, did no work at all, predating on whoever had food available, while Jenna played with a canvas she had insisted on bring with her in the van.  Everyone shared freely in her work and no-one understood it.

Of the group, only Tark and Natalie painted assiduously, whenever they could.  Tark’s work reflected the outlier he felt himself to be, apologetic, almost desperate.  The heat disagreed with him, almost everything that could bite bit him: he had never travelled abroad before, only possessing a passport by chance because his parents had once considered going on holiday to Madeira.  Those around him were all friends; they had a level of communication he did not share.

He worried Tazza.   “Tark, mate, you should get out more!  Get down on the beach a bit, yeah?  Get some sun, man!”

Their apartment had a terrace, so Tark wondered at Tazza’s logic and anyway sun was the last thing he wanted.   His paintings, half-completed dashes of sorrow, the work of a day, sometimes less, piled up.   Although he shared a room with Natalie, he scrupulously observed her celibacy  rules, and they hardly spoke.

Then one day, about four weeks after their arrival, Natalie said:   “I’m pregnant.”

Tark knew he could not be the father, of course.  At last he found a voice for that well of anger that he kept so repressed.   “Who is it?  And do you want to tell me when?  I mean, before you dragged me down here, obviously.”

“I didn’t drag you anywhere.  Tazza’s the father. If you must know.  We were doing it at my pad.  You kept leaving me to go to night classes.  So don’t try to put the blame on me. ”

“They’ve been seeing each other for months,”  Becs said at breakfast,  “That’s why she didn’t go to London.  We thought you knew.”

Tark had one more exchange with Natalie before he left, when, with a commendable absence of bitterness, he wondered why she had felt so free to put her career at risk with Tazza, rather than himself.

“I like him.  I needed you, for the support, that was all.  Somebody there, you know?  We could never have stayed together, though.  You’re not a real creative, Tark.  You must see that.”

That might have been the last Tarq heard of Natalie.  He returned home, found a new job because work was plentiful in those days, and he almost, but not quite, resumed his self-conscious, self-isolating life – with just this difference: in his chosen solitude, in the peace of his room and for reasons entirely different to before, he continued to paint.

A year would have to pass before the doorbell announced a visit from Margo, the lady who ran the Amdram club.

“Can you paint the sets for our next show?  The chap we used last year tries, but he can’t really do what you do.”

“Natalie isn’t with me, now.”

“So I was told.  I never really liked her contribution, anyway, to be frank; too fussy.  I’d prefer if you did it on your own.”

This surprised Tarq, but he agreed.  He painted the sets.  By a stroke of fortune that wasn’t really a stroke of fortune because Margo set it up, someone from the regional opera company came to see his work and asked him to do their sets, too.  Soon, a wider audience began to express interest in his paintings.

And there, I suppose, the story rests.  You will probably have guessed by now that ‘Tarq’ is a pseudonym, not our hero’s real name.  Even in this day and age, few painters gain notability and wealth in their lifetime, but ‘Tarq’ has certainly achieved this.  Nowadays his signature on a painting is worth millions.  To this day he remains an artist of note, although his genius has never exceeded that of the group known as the ‘Avant Cavalaire-sur Mer’ triptych, with their unique blending of paint and clay.

The last time I saw him, I asked if he ever got in touch with Natalie again. I knew that she had never reached Art College in London as she planned, electing instead to follow a rock band on a tour or two.   Tarq knew where she was, he said, because she had written to him asking if he would like to paint with her again.   He told me he refused her request.

He remains a very private, and to strangers, a very lonely figure.  His face is not well known, but should you be in Sacramento, in the area, say, of the K Street Mall, and should you notice a gaunt, septuagenarian beanpole of a figure who lopes rather than strides, with his eyes fixed on his own reflection in the windows of the stores, it is likely to be him.  Lately, I am told, he is seen sometimes in the company of a woman who has the hands of an artist.  They walk together but they never talk.

I like to think that she is Natalie.

© 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

Image Credits: Featured Image: 5598 375 from Pixabay

Artist with Easel: Bridgesward from Pixabay

Cavalaire-sur-Mer: RD LH from Pixabay

Gone

The man in the seat in front was picking his teeth with what looked like a straightened-out paper clip.  Head bent forward over the green canvas bag on his knees, he appeared to be engrossed in this exercise, even obsessed by it.

Randall tapped him on his shoulder, hesitantly.  The man turned, still picking, showing Randall a face much older than he first thought.   “Yeah mate?”

“I’m sorry if I…can you tell me, is Hall Park Gardens the next stop?”

The man frowned, examining the end of his improvised toothpick for a result, and finding none.  “Hall Park Gardens?  Nah, don’t know no Hall Park Gardens.  Wrong bus, mate.”

“Oh, no!”  Randall pushed himself back into his seat.  The bus banged over a pothole, jarring his spine.  He remembered why he hated buses; the immediacy of human contact, the hard cushions, the noise, the wasted hours and inexplicable diversions through endless residential streets.  Why had he allowed himself to be dissuaded from driving here?

“That’s a wicked place for parking, Take the train.  It’s ever so simple!  The Fifty-Nine bus stops right outside the station.  It goes more or less straight to St. Mary Magdalene.”

More or less.  More or less!  Randall stared out at a strange street, at kebab shops, emporia for shoes, for vegetables, for fashions:  a strange street in a strange city – strangers on the pavements, dashing or wandering, as lost as he.

“Smartly dressed.  Funeral I’d say.  I’m right, aren’t I?”  The man in the seat in front had turned to face him again.  Salt-and-pepper grey stubble on a sallow, smoke-dried face.

“Yes.  Yes, that’s correct.”

“Thought so.  White shirt, black tie.  Thought so.  Family?”

“No, no.  A friend – an old friend.”

“Sad, very sad, that.  What church?”

“Sorry?”

“What church is the funeral at?  That’s where yer goin’ innit?”

“Oh.  Oh, yes.   St. Mary Magdalene.  Yes, the funeral’s there.”

“Bleedin’ ‘ell, were you ever on the wrong bus!  Lissen,”   the man leaned a beige jacket-clad arm on the back of his seat.  “Forget about Hall Park Gardens, dunno where that is, anyway.  Lissen, I’m gettin’ off next stop, but you stay on for two more stops, yeah?  Get off at The Broadway.  Take the Number Twelve goin’ east.  It’ll have ‘City Centre’ on the front.  St. Mary’s is either the fourth or the fifth stop on that route, alright mate?  Don’t take the Twelve B, that goes a diff’rent way, see?”  Randall’s tooth picker reached for the stop button on the pillar at the gangway end of his seat.  “Good luck, mate.”

Something about the man was familiar, reminded Randall of someone.  He looked up to ask, but the man had gone.

The Broadway proved to be a wide avenue of larger dwellings, its pavements lined with tall plane trees beneath which a number of past residents had, in return for a plaque dedicated to their memory, provided those seats more commonly associated with city parks.   Regaled by birdsong, Randall rested upon Allen Shopland’s memorial laths with peace of mind only faintly disturbed by the association in his memory between St. Mary Magdalene’s Church and Hall Park Gardens.  Somehow he was sure the one was to be found at the end of the other, although whence that memory came was a mystery to him.

A bus arrived, putting an end to his disquiet.  He flashed his travel card at the screen by the driver’s seat and contemplated asking its morose incumbent to tell him when he had reached his stop, but the driver’s demeanor was less than communicative so he held his peace.  A church, after all, could scarcely be so inconspicuous as to be missed.

Wedging his knees behind yet another bus seat, Randall surrendered himself to the pitch and yaw of the different vehicle, trying to concentrate upon his memory of Michael; of their years serving together in the Middle East and the close bond between them that was broken by the end of their army careers.  What on earth had brought his dear friend to live in this vast urban sprawl?  What could possibly have possessed him to settle here?  Michael was dead:  after so few years it was inconceivable; was it illness, love for Belle who had strung him along so mercilessly, or was it this city that had killed him?  The memory of Michael’s face, shining with the smile that was so uniquely his, filled Randall’s eyes and his heart, bringing tears as it always did.  He was not so old he could not weep without shame.

“Close, were you dearie?”   There was a woman sitting next to him.  “Move over a bit, dear.”

Beyond the window, streets and houses flashed by.   How many stops was that?  He had lost count.

“We’re going too fast!”  He cried.

“This driver, dear.  He’s a bit of a psykiepath, if you asks me.  Is this your stop then?”

“I don’t know.  Is it St. Mary Magdalene?”

“Lord no!  You’re going in the wrong direction, dearie.  You wanted the one for the City Centre!”

Frantic now, Randall jabbed at the stop button, thrusting out into the gangway.  “Stop!  Stop!”  He half-stumbled forward, swinging gibbon-like from rail to rail.

“Stay behind the line!”  The psychopath commanded him, then checked in his interior mirror.  “Oh, gawd!”  The bus was drawn quickly to a halt, incurring a clamour of displeasure from nearby traffic, doors opening with a viperous hiss. “Go on, get off!”

Randall had no idea where he was.  He only knew Michael’s funeral was timed for two-thirty that afternoon, an appointment that he would now be pressed to make.   Why, oh why had he elected not to drive himself here?  Why, knowing he had not ridden on a bus for thirty years, hadn’t he ignored advice and taken a taxi from the station rank?  So many whys, so much self-reproach; hadn’t Michael always teased him for his inflexible nature?  It was the reason he had not risen in the army as his parents expected he would, the reason his marriage to Kate had stuttered and struggled for years before finally breaking down.

He must be calm.  He must take stock.

Buses, clearly, were not to be trusted.  He decided to walk.

This could become a military exercise; Michael would appreciate that.  Like those days of the advance, yomping across stony desert terrain with a full pack – a sort of half run, rhythmic and persistent, eating up the miles regardless of pain or blazing heat.

The military mind kicked in.  First, he needed to know his present location, and identify the route to St. Mary Magdalene.  The bus had dropped him off near a crossroads, on the corner of which stood a general store.

“Do you have a town map?”  Randall asked.    Then, when he had made the purchase, “Can you show me where we are now, and the whereabouts of St. Mary Magdalene?”

“You are wanting a church?” The shopkeeper seemed a little vague and took care to keep a separation between Randall and himself, but he supplied the answers he thought Randall wanted.

“Thank you!”  Said Randall.  Clarity at last!

Back on the pavement with his directions securely in his head, Randall set off at the peculiar dog-trot his army training had taught.   People stepped aside to allow him through and some passed comments but he neither noticed nor cared; he had a map in his hand and three miles to cover before he reached the church.   Street upon street, feet hurting, heart pounding, sweat pouring, set upon accomplishing his mission, just like the old days – the good days.  He would arrive there in time!

Yet the streets were sometimes roads, the roads lanes or alleys; none of which complied with his map.  So many roads were unnamed in these days, their signs never replaced when the walls that bore them changed, or stolen by enterprising kids with an eye to the car boot sales, or for their personal collections.  He struggled with the map – its print was so small, his eyes grown weaker with the years; nevertheless, on he went in his odd, stumbling run, stride unbroken, up streets and down roads none of which had meaning, with the old panic rising and rising in his heart and the old pain growing at the very centre of his being.

Then suddenly he knew where he was.  Without warning the road where his map had failed to lead him was there, stretched out before him, wide and straight!  The familiarity of the place burned into his eyes, every feature of it memorable and dazzlingly real.  At its distant end, the road terminated before a proud grey church around which the first mourners were gathering.  Randall, his heart uplifted, mustered the last of his energy and began his journey up that final road.  His appointment with Michael would be honoured, the love between them that had always remained unexpressed could be avowed before his friend, his dear, dear friend passed through the gates into eternity.

Why, suddenly, could he go no further?  How did it happen?  What was a road had become a lake, wide, probably deep, certainly beyond his ability to cross.  There was an island in the centre of the lake, standing high above the water, garlanded with layer upon layer of rhododendrons, pink and red.  The church stood at the water’s opposite shore, doors opened wide in invitation, its congregation gathered and elevated in song, yet there was no way to reach it, for the lake was all of a mile to either side of him and almost half as much across.

Defeated, Randall fell to his knees, compelled as he believed to make his last goodbyes from a distance, to utter a prayer unheard by the man he loved.  It was then the boat found him, it was then.

“Let’s go across, then, old man, shall we?  Let’s go and tell him what you’ve kept hidden all these years.”

Everything had changed.  He was sitting on an unyielding wooden seat, and Michael stood before him, wearing a dog collar that identified him as a priest.

“Michael?”

A feminine hand clasped his, and a warm familiar voice melted into his ear.  “Dad, it’s Rosie – I’m here now.  This is Father Clemence, Dad.  He’s not Michael.  I’m sorry Father; he sees people, you know?  From his past, and that.”

“I’m afraid he’s in a bit of a state,” Father Clemence said, “We lack facilities you see. The police wanted to take him to the Care Centre but Randall was so insistent upon coming here – something about a funeral?  He seemed to believe the police car was a boat, for some reason.  He kept talking about crossing a lake.  I wish I had a better understanding of these things.”

“His best friend was called Michael – he knew him from his army days.  Michael was drowned in a boating accident on Hall Park Garden Lake; in Torrenton, you know?”

Randall’s voice was unsteady.  “He keeps telling me Michael was drunk.  He never drank, never!”

“Don’t upset yourself, Dad.  Who keeps saying that?”

“The toothpick man.  Him!”  Randall stabbed at the priest with a wavering finger.  “That’s him!  He was on the bus!”

“This is Father Clemence.”  Rosie soothed.  “It was after they was demobbed, Father.  Michael couldn’t cope with civvy life, could he, Dad?   He was drinking really heavy the night he died.”

“Is that Rosie?  When is Michael’s funeral?  I was told two-thirty at St. Mary Magdalene’s; am I late?”

“Only by about twenty years, Dad.  Michael died a long time ago.  You were right about the date, though, and the time of the funeral; you always seem to manage that.  We’ve been worried sick about you, you know?  Come on, let’s get you home.”

“It’s a long way.  I came on the train.”

“No, Dad, it’s about twenty minutes.  I don’t know how you got here, but it wasn’t by train.”

“I loved Michael.”

“I know, Dad, I know.”

© 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.

Abel

Finally, the gaudily-clothed party of holiday makers had audibly subsided to a conspiratorial murmur.   Their car stood deserted in the boatyard car park having disgorged its umpteenth suitcase, their enthusiastic spaniel dog had signed its name to almost everything that could offer an intriguing scent, and now they huddled beside the mooring in two groups, expectant, irresolute.   

Canal boat rental ‘Daisy May’ of the long gleaming red cabin waited, Perkins diesel puttering idly.  

Abel, who never hurried, saw that they were settled and wandered across to them. Under the spaniel’s contemplative eye a family of ducks swam around the stern of the boat; mother brown and glistening, chicks yellow going on brown and cheeping. At Abel’s approach but on no specific invitation, the more mature vacationers began to venture onto the deck. Their kids were already on board, climbing over the narrow boat’s cabin roof – four of them in all, the youngest maybe five or six.  Anxious maternal eyes watched as an attentive elder shepherded them to safety.  

“Toby, don’t touch now.”

“Michelle, keep hold of Petey, there’s a darling.”

 Two families, as Abel judged, and ready occupants for every one of Daisy May’s twelve berths.  They had driven up from somewhere in the South.

“Are you ready to go, then?”  His lazy, familiar drawl seemed to ripen with the season, Ariel thought..    

Ariel watched from her steamer chair on the front trestle of the boathouse, saw Abel draw admiring stares from a pair of teenage girls in the party.  He was a big man, broad and muscular, his body honed by a lifetime on the canals.   

The teenage girls dissolved into shy giggles. 

“The cabins are so small!”  One of the older women complained.

“Can’t be no wider, you wouldn’t get through the locks,” Abel told her. “She’s seventy feet stem to stern. She’s got everything you need. Just accept it all happens in a space eight feet wide.   Now;” He addressed the older man.  “Remember what I showed you?   Up is forwards, down is back.  It’s a tiller, so push left if you want to go right, right to go left, Okay?  Oh, and you steer from the back, so you need to push off from the mooring, or come off stern first.  I’ll leave you to it.  Enjoy yourselves and take it slow!”

His litany completed, Ariel drank in Abel’s measured, capable steps as he returned to her.  She greeted him with her twisted half-smile, patting the seat beside her own in invitation.  “The last one.  You’ve had a busy morning!”

“Busiest day of the year!”  He lowered himself into the chair, extracting a squeak of mild protest from its seasoned wood.  Ariel wondered, not for the first time, if all that muscle was sculptured from marble.  “I’ve got everything hired out until Sunday, now.”

“And no boat hauled up.” Ariel glanced towards the empty slipway that skirted the boathouse.  “What are you going to do all week?”   

“Problem, I know.  I was going to fix the seals on ‘Gracie’s’ pump out valve, but we were short by a couple of boats and it was nothing serious, so I had to put her back in the water.  More than that,” he nodded towards the newly-tenanted narrow boat now struggling at its moorings, “We called in this ‘un from Dad’s yard.   Moira overbooked us again.”

“I thought I didn’t recognise her.”  Trying to disguise her amusement, Ariel watched as ‘Daisy May’s’ novice crew tried to leave the mooring forwards, frantically thrusting their fending poles at the bank.  “She looks a nice boat.  When did you bring her up?”  Abel’s father ran a twin boatyard some thirty miles south on the Grand Union Canal.

“Dad brought her on Wednesday.  I still had to fit her out with some stuff, though.  She’s brand new.   We only bought her this Spring.”

Down on the canal, the elderly man at ‘Daisy May’s’ tiller was becoming increasingly agitated.

“I’ll just be a minute.”  Abel apologised.

Offering Ariel another prospect of his departing figure the young boatyard owner strode (at the closest he ever came to a rush, she thought) back towards the mooring, calling out to the novice helmsman.  “Mr. Yardley, sir, put her in reverse!  Down!   Down for reverse!  See, it’s pulling water over the rudder, so now put your tiller hard left.   Nope, left – that’s it.   Now you’ve got her!   Straighten nice and easy, see  – there you go!”

Several tons of steel narrow boat backed out into the placid water of the canal, its elderly navigator grinning at his success like a Cheshire cat as children cheered and a manic spaniel raced back and forth along the cabin roof.

“I thought you took them up to Handyard’s Lock first, to show them the basic stuff.”  Ariel said as Abel returned.

“I do.  Some take longer to accept it than others.  They all think it’s easy, I can do this, so they don’t listen.  It is easy, but they don’t listen.  He’ll be all right now.”

“You’ll have to buy a couple more boats.”  

“Well, the business is there, certainly.  But we already have fourteen in the water, and they’re getting more expensive every year.”  Abel shrugged.  “I don’t know; maybe. I sort of like life as it is.”

Sighing, Ariel turned her face to the sun, closing her eyes.  “You have it all here, don’t you?  The canal, your boats, a quiet country lane miles away from the traffic, generations away from the world.  I envy you, sometimes.”

Abel chuckled. “Envy me?  Well, I don’t think I ever saw myself as that lucky.  Maybe I am.”

“Absolutely you are!  I look at you, always contented, not a shred of ambition anywhere in your body?  Every time I see you it’s the same.  You’re just happy, aren’t you?”

“And you’re not?”

Ariel sat up in her chair, suddenly decisive.  “I could use another beer.  Do you have anything for lunch in there?  A sandwich or something?”

“There’s bread, and beer in the fridge.  Help yourself.”

But she had already left him, nimbly skipping through the clutter of tools and stores to the back of the boathouse where, behind a row of foggy and randomly cracked windows, Abel lived.

His was a ramshackle existence, unchanged for as long as Ariel had known the boatman.  He had grown up here, helping Mark, his father, with never much use for school or learning, although he had learned his craft well enough; and when Mark bought the site down south, Abel simply took over.  There lingered a friendly odor of generations (who knew how many?) behind those smutty window panes that was familiar to her, a kind of mustiness that felt comfortable.   A living area, chairs, a sofa scattered with magazines and tour brochures, a worn Persian carpet, today littered with the detritus of ready-meal life, that might just as easily play host to a misbehaving outboard motor, or a bilge pump.  Adjoining this, a kitchen – small but clean, with a bread bin, fridge full of beer, some ham…

It was hot.  Midday sun beat down on the boathouse roof, the butter was melting as she applied it to the bread.  Two bottles of Coors were coldly welcome in her hands.

“Thought you’d like another beer.”  She said, rejoining him.  “When are you going to build yourself a proper house?”

“I wonder how many times you’re going to ask me that?  I wonder how many times I’ve given you the same answer.  I like being right here, by this old canal. I’m happy as I am.”

Ariel didn’t respond for a minute.   She sucked her beer, listening to the waterside birds as they cheeped and clucked their way through a day’s commerce, trading beauty for bread with the steady trickle of tourist boats passing by.

“The canal’s changing, though.” She said at last, and Abel didn’t have to answer, because the peace was disturbed by a heavier diesel chug which, growing in volume, finally resolved itself into a sleek white river cruiser.   “Isn’t that ‘Moonlight’?” She asked.

Abel nodded.  “It was.  Old Tarbut got too decrepit to use her – got himself a heart attack winding her through Skinsford Lock, so he sold her on to Armand Brothers.  Now she’s ‘Number Three Four Seven.’   Where’s the romance, huh?”

“Tarbut? He was nearly blind last time I met him.”  Ariel chuckled.  “I hope they cleared the cabin of all those spiders.”

“I’m sure.”   Abel waved to the couple who stood arm-in-arm at the boat’s smart little wooden wheel, and they waved back.  “Pair of townies like them, They’d be running round the deck screaming otherwise.  You’re right, though.  Things are changing.  Maybe twice as many holiday makers these days.  It isn’t a bad thing, I don’t suppose.  Good for business.”

“I remember a day like this, not too many summers ago, you and I went skinny-dipping down there.  We couldn’t do that now.   We’d be caught.”

Abel allowed himself a twitch of a smile.  “We were bloody nearly caught then, as I recall.  We were eleven years old.  The rules were different.”

“My dad wouldn’t have thought so.” Ariel sighed.  “Twenty-two years!”  She sat up, suddenly.  “There!  Did you see it?  Kingfisher!  Just a blue flash, but I know I saw!”

“Oh, him!  He’s been around a while, now.  Don’t know why – they prefer the rivers, mostly.  I expect he’ll move on soon.  Twenty-one.”

“Twenty-one ?”

“Twenty-one years.  That was the year of our eleven plus.  I failed.”

“And I went on to Partondon Grammar, for all the good it did me.”   She closed her eyes, lost in a golden haze of reminiscence.  “But still, it was a beautiful summer.”

Neither spoke then, reclined side by side, at one with their thoughts.  Oftentimes they might doze for a while here, with the water for company; until waking, she might turn to see his sleeping face and smile, as a lover might, at his innocence.  They were companions, friends, confidantes; and whether in the cold rains of winter or the summer heat this boatyard had been almost as much a part of Ariel’s life as Abel’s.  Here she had learned watercraft, taught herself how to paint the glossy barge art that adorned the holiday narrow boats just as gaily as the barges of old. If her love of art had been born here, so too in turns she had been baptised in tar, in antifouling, engine oil or grease; been exhausted, elated, proud and angry, but most of all she had felt the love that this place wrapped around her.  For as many hours of the week as were spared to her, she would come here, and always she would feel welcomed.

“Ah, here we go.”  Abel said.

A big river cruiser had burbled quietly up to the mooring, the sound of its engine lost in the silence of their thoughts.  A spare-looking man was already ashore, while a woman in a green blouse held a line from the stern, ready to tie off.

The man looked up as Abel approached him.   “How much for the mooring?”   He demanded crisply.  “We’re staying overnight.”

“Not here, this is a private mooring.  There’s a public staithe at the Stag and Hound by Handyard Lock.”

The man flushed immediately, primed for argument. He was short in stature and aggressive by instinct.  A terrier, Ariel thought; and he’s not enjoying his holiday. “What am I supposed to do, then?  I’m not going to moor outside a pub!”

“This boat’s from Robertson’s, isn’t it?  You could wind by the lock and take her back there.  It’s no more than five miles.  It’ll be quieter around their yard.”

Ariel allowed herself to chuckle openly, watching the man’s peacock strut as he vented his frustration.  Abel was unmoved and unmoving.  The man waved his wallet, Abel shook his head, and the scene played itself out, the one spoiling for altercation, the other patient, but obdurate, until there were no lines left in their script.  At last the visitor climbed back on his boat and, with a well-chosen selection of over-the-shoulder invective, sailed on.

“You could have let him!”  She rebuked, as Abel returned.

“Right!   They’d be queuing up by tonight.  I must have six signs saying this is a private staithe, They get worse.  What if one of my own boats comes in – a repair or something?”

The friends sat side by side, sucking their beers and watching a steady flow of tour boats pass by.

“What are you going to do, Abe?”  Ariel asked.

“Do?  Me?   Tidy up the boathouse this week, I reckon.  And I’ve got yards of paperwork to catch up on.”

“No, not this week.  I mean, with the rest of your life.   You can’t live at the back of a shed forever.”

“Why not?”

“You’re worth so much more, I suppose.”  Ariel said.

He took her hand gently and held it, and if her fingers trembled at his touch, he did not seem to notice.  “You know, I’ve often wondered about this ‘worth’ thing.  About chasing ‘success’, whatever that means – about always wanting a little bit more.  The way I look at it, I have what I want – all I’m really entitled to want – this is my little place in the grand scheme of things.  If I tried to change more than I needed to change, I’d only end up making myself unhappy. Other people, too.”  Abel added.  “Of course, it’s different for you.”

“How?  How is it different?”

“You like it – the pressure, the rushing about.  You enjoy the challenge, I expect.  That isn’t for me.”

“Really? Yes, I suppose I must.”   Ariel said.  “Don’t you ever want – anything – to alter, to improve?  I mean, you must sometimes ask yourself whether there could be another way?”

“Nope!”  Abel grinned.  “Everything seems to me to be just as it should be.”

He pushed himself out of his chair and walked down to the mooring to tidy a line his last customers had left beside the water.   “They’ll be missing this!” He called over his shoulder.  Ariel did not answer.  When he turned around he saw she had gone.   Such arbitrary departures were lately a peculiarity of Ariel’s visits, so he assumed she had needed to go back to her work.  As he returned to the boathouse he pictured his friend there as he always saw her.  Trim and pretty still, with her hair about her face in the breeze and that fond, slightly cynical smile, and he thought how nice a picture that was, and how peaceful her nearness made him feel.  He almost laughed aloud, as he often did when he daydreamed of Ariel, at the sheer joy she brought him.   Tomorrow she would be back, just as usual.

Ariel set her little car popping around the twists and turns of the boatyard’s narrow lane, heading  towards a village and a main road, which, in turn, would lead towards a town.  As she drove she wiped tears from her face, trying to ignore  the thump of her suitcase as it slid from side to side across the back seat.   When she reached town she would join a motorway to a city and an airport where the man she had agreed to marry would be waiting.  It was the third time she had made this appointment, and he had proved his love for her by his infinite patience when she had failed him twice.   That she could not return his devotion made her sad, and leaving the only man she could ever love cut a wound in her heart, but it was time for one promise, at last, to be kept.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  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