Page 2 of 9

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.

Satan’s Rock

Part Four

An Invitation

Petergunn2:   Hi Mel!  

Melatrix:     Hi Babes – feeling better?

Petergunn2:  Yeah – sorreeee.

Melatrix:    Cool!   Favour 4 me?  JJJ?

Petergunn2:  Ask and it shall b given – if it doesn’t cost me.

Melatrix:    Remember that photo I took of u?   On the prom last Easter?   Can u mail it me?  I have some ideas.

Petergunn2:   WHAT ideas?

Melatrix:     OK, don’t worry then.   Like I care?

Petergunn:   Yeah, right. Look in your inbox.  And Mel?  Don’t give me lizard feet this time!

Melatrix:     Ta babes.

In the privacy of her room Melanie could, and sometimes did, cry hopelessly in those weeks and months when she knew her mum and dad were preparing to part.   Peter helped her.  He had a way of making the day easier to face.  When her father finally left and she missed him and the things she had share only with him, she told Peter those things, and Peter found the words to comfort her.  Tonight, as she played idly with the picture of her friend, morphing his image this way and that, she was reaching a time in her life when she was beginning to wonder just how important he was to her.    

#

Peter had no idea what thoughts drew him across the causeway towards the rock on the morning following his exams.  A prospect of two free periods at class would not be justification enough, nor would the wafted guitar music announcing that Vincent, the Rock’s incumbent mansion owner was at home, have sufficed.  Faint strains from a succession of old songs, they were, middle-of-the-road stuff from the sixties and seventies:  “Brown Sugar”, “Maggie May”, “Aquarius”: they had a magical quality, so that when the final notes died away there was a feeling of loss,  but they would still have failed to turn his feet in their direction.  He had heard them too often.

If he tried to form a picture in his head of the ageing rock star who played them, perched up there on the ramparts of Crowley’s fantasy castle, the images were faded and confused.  They lacked the clarity of his younger years when Vincent had first come to Levenport.  Then he had lain in bed at night for wakeful hours, just imagining.  This morning his academic prospects, the pictures of his future, concerned him more.   Yet here he was.  Why?

It had seemed no time at all before he came upon that seagull.  It had perched, motionless, with one wing partly extended, on a piece of driftwood sticking out of the sand, apparently sunning itself.   The diamond-mark was clearly visible on its neck, the same hard eye watching him as he wandered toward it.

“You liked the music?”  Asked the seagull.

“You’re not real.”  Peter accused him.

“I said, darling chap,” The gull repeated slowly; “Did you like his music?”

The words are forming inside my head, Peter thought.  Is this how schizophrenia starts?

“It’s all right, dear, you don’t have to speak if you don’t want to;” the seagull said testily.  “He wants to meet you.  Come on!”  

And with a few lazy wing-beats it was sky-borne, arrowing through wheeling flocks of its brethren towards the rock. There were a hundred gulls over the bay that morning yet the bird’s identity was never in doubt, for while the others dived, turned, soared upon the breeze, the diamond gull’s direction never varied.   When it perched, a tiny white fleck, atop one of those ludicrous Bavarian towers, Peter saw it clearly, even fancied it may be beckoning to him:  the words “Come – now!” rattled in his head with jangling insistence.

“Alright – I’m coming!   Shut up!”  He reprimanded the bird, forming the words in his mind.

“Oh!   Hissy-fits now!   So sorry!”

What?

So without real justification other than an imagined conversation with a seabird he found himself wandering through a hamlet of fishermen’s cottages that adorned the man-made platform at the foot of St Benedict’s Rock.  The builders of The House had created this platform to assist their labours:  the cottages had sprouted like fungi from it after the carpenters, the masons and the forgemasters left.   Once, the fisher people had populated its quay with boats.  Just two remained, scarcely seaworthy fishing smacks, their rotting hulls slapping and gurgling in the oily water.

 Throughout all of his sixteen years Peter had come to the island maybe five times.   The aggressive wildlife which inhabited the place was kept in check by Levenport’s council; its lurid history of warriors and monks with pagan rites was largely forgotten.  There were holiday lets on the rock, although, perhaps because it was so far removed from the hub of the town, tenancies were rare.   Certainly a necrotic air hung about the tiny houses with their peeling paint, clustered mushroom-like around echoing back-lanes. The rock frowned darkly overhead, depriving them of sun.   Lichens dripped in the cold dampness.   An unkempt dog snuffled by.

Peter, (already doubting the moment of unhinged reason that had brought him here), strode quickly through the little street, anxious to be free of its chill.   But if he had hoped for better from the road which ascended the rock itself he was to be disappointed; for although the narrow path that had long ago led teetering Benedictines to their lofty cells had been widened, burrowing in places into, and in one case through, the sheer basalt, the ocean breeze howled icily of ghosts of the past, dredging up shuddering memories of misery and murder from resources within Peter’s mind.   Around each new bend shades of marauding Vikings lurked: cold monks drifted by, their empty faces set in grim smiles: Quimple the mad architect’s flailing body plummeted past on its fatal fall.

Three small dwellings clung to the landward side of the rock, optimistic summer rents – no-one would winter here.  The first, a fresh-painted Hobbit House, leaned precariously from amid a tangle of greenery, bushes planted in imported earth which made some attempt to soften the stark angles of the stone.   Above it, on the opposite side of the road, two further hovels had fared less well.   Wedged against the rock itself, they awaited final destruction with roofs agape and walls crazed by ominous cracks.   Black windows, their glass long gone, stared sightlessly towards the shore.  It was many summers since anyone had sacrificed their vacation to these.

After climbing westward for almost a half-mile Crowley’s road cut through the rock in a tunnel sufficiently high for a coach and horses, with coachmen aloft in the prevailing fashion, to pass. Dim electricity lit this burrow from algae-green lantern glass recessed in the walls. Peter hurried through, fearful of the shadows it contained and a little revolted by the very specific graffiti daubed over its sides.

Emerging from the tunnel he might have thought of  himself as entering a different dimension. The island’s south side was brighter, sunnier.  Here the road turned first south, then east, rising upon a gentler slope through wild meadow with trees below him to his right, among which were several compact cottages, all well cared-for and one or two obviously occupied.   As he walked by the front yard of one of these a little girl was engrossed in a kind of skipping game: she grinned at him as he passed – a pretty, vacant grin that somehow spoke of more than greeting.  He scuffed his shoes, a self-conscious “hello” playing around in his throat. A little way behind the houses, screened from the  road by trees, the land fell away in great cliffs to the sea. Above the road on the left clumps of wild rhododendron obscured Peter’s view of the summit and the house which topped it.  Further up, at the road’s final turn, a solitary white-washed cottage was the only sign of habitation.  It was a really small house, maybe one room upstairs and one down, with a lean-to shed on the back.   Gingham curtains in the windows spoke of bygones, their torn dirtiness told of neglect.   A tin bath, an axe, several garden tools hung along the lean-to wall in an orderly rank, though, and the large garden running downhill from the rear was well cared for.

“Now what be you doing ‘ere?”   The voice was amiable and slow, but it alarmed Peter enough to stop him in his tracks.

“I’m going to The House.” He turned to address a full-figured man standing at the cottage door, regarding him with a bland expression.   He noticed with passing interest that the man had no trousers on.

“Are you now!”   This wasn’t a question.   The man hoisted at sagging, stripey underpants.   “What makes you think you can go there?”

Peter thought quickly.  “I’m invited;” he said – which was true in part, at least.

“Are you now!”   The man repeated.  “Who do you be, then?   You got an ‘ppointment?”

“I was asked to come this morning,” He refrained from admitting his invitation had been issued by a seagull.  “I’m Peter Cartwright.”

The man was silent for a moment, while he appeared to chew upon something: ‘Maybe I disturbed his lunch’,   Peter thought.

“Are you now!   Peter Cartwright, eh?”  Peter got ready to run.

“Well, you carry on now, young Peter, you’m expected, you are.   Tell them at the gate they’re to let you past.  Tell ‘em Toby said so.”   The man turned to re-enter his cottage, adding for information: “I’m Toby.”

Toby closed the cottage door behind him, leaving Peter rather wishing he had not seen the back of those underpants. 

Expected?  How could he be ‘expected’ when really a spur-of-a-moment decision was all that had brought him here?   Did that remarkable bird talk in the heads of other people too?   Peter considered himself a logical sort of person, not given to impulses, and this was just so, so impulsive of him!   Perhaps if he turned back, now…

But he had come so far; and if he did turn back, well, then he would forgo the very slender chance, if he somehow was invited, to meet the wild guitarist whose sounds filled him with so many special feelings,and to get to see the inside of The Great House, the Crowley House, a place he had ached to explore ever since he was a small child.   Hidden still from his sight, he nonetheless knew that the gatehouse was just around the next bend.   So, gathering his courage, and with the feeling that his whole life was approaching an irrevocable moment of change, he walked on.

The gatehouse had lost its three Imperial Russian domes the night old Crowley died: one completely removed by the storm, the others unsafe and demolished shortly afterward.   They had never been replaced, so what now stood before Peter, whilst imposing enough, was a gatehouse of relatively modest and sober proportions, where a moderately modest and sober gatekeeper waited for him behind a pair of modern wrought-iron gates.   This smiling, fully-trousered figure greeted Peter with a friendly: “Hello old boy, what brings you to us?”   He sounded like he had been an officer in the army, but his hair would have better befitted a roadie.   “Can I announce you?”

“Hello, I’m Peter.”  Said Peter, feeling somewhat reassured:  “Toby says you’re to let me through.”

“Righto!”  The gatekeeper picked up a telephone from a box on the wall, waiting for a second or two before the line opened at the other end, then saying: “Vincent, someone quite youthful called Peter is here…”   He glanced in Peter’s direction, whispering: “Peter who?”

“Cartwright.”

“Peter Cartwright.  Are you expecting him?”

The voice from the other end was an explosion of sound, which the gatekeeper, with a chuckle, played six inches from his ear.

“You can go on up;” he told Peter, “I think he’s going to like you.”

Beyond the gate, a driveway led through a walled garden with perfectly trimmed lawns to the house itself, a brick-built curved regency façade of three storeys with rows of high windows to welcome the sun.   Its walls were crenulated at roof level, as if to repel some enemy or another, while at each end the slim rocket-tubes of Bavarian towers sprouted like forced asparagus.   Splurged exuberantly into the centre of the facing wall were the great black timber doors of the house, twelve feet in height; these in turn dwarfed by a huge arch, inset with carving and glass of every imaginable colour.   Peter had never seen this view of St. Benedict’s House, which his father dismissed as a ‘half-arsed mosque’, and had to search for his own description of its outlandish marriage of styles.   ‘Disney plays Royal Crescent’ was all he could come up with.

He had almost reached the doors at the centre of the Arabian Arch when, with a clank of metal which made him jump and a somewhat musical grinding noise which made him cringe, they swung open.

         Before him a vaulted hallway of palatial proportions rose to the building’s full height, culminating in a vast dome of glass.   To right and left the sides of this space were formed by the galleried ends of each floor of the house, linked at their further extremity to a perfectly oval glass stairway, railed with chrome, which ascended to each landing in turn.   Central to the back wall, behind the stairs, a huge portrait of a rock star playing on a darkened stage exuded Vincent Harper’s presence: and in the centre of the pink marble floor of the hall stood the man himself.

“Peter! Mate!  Are we glad to see you!  I was beginning to think you wasn’t coming, you 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.

Image Credits: Header picture by Mohb Zuber Seifi from Pixabay

Guitarist by Clk-Free Vector Imaging from Pixabay

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