The gaudily-clothed party of holiday-makers seemed to have settled at last. Their car in the boatyard car park was apparently empty and locked, their enthusiastic spaniel dog had signed its name to almost everything that could offer an intriguing scent, and now they were huddled beside the mooring in two groups, irresolute.
Their canal boat rental ‘Daisy May’s’ long, gleaming red cabin stood open, her Perkins diesel puttering idly.
Abel wandered across to them. A speculative family of ducks was already in attendance; mother brown and glistening, chicks yellow going on brown and cheeping. The holiday makers’ kids were already on board, climbing onto 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 sister 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 and would already be tired. Comfortable or not, they would sleep tonight.
“Are you ready to go, everyone?” He asked in his lazy, familiar drawl.
Malana, watching from her steamer chair on the front trestle of the boathouse, saw how easily Abel drew admiring stares from a pair of teenage girls in the company. He was a big man, broad and muscular, his body honed by his lifetime on the canals. Love of this work exuded from every pore, but he never hurried, or betrayed any anxiety. It was a confidence that was inspiring.
The teenage girls began to giggle conspiratorially. “The cabins are so small!” One of the older women complained.
“She’s seventy feet stem to stern and she’s got everything you need.” Abel told her. “You just have to remember 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!”
Malana 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 an 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. Malana 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.” Malana 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 ‘Darling Gracie’s’ pump out valve, but we were short by a couple of boats, so I had to put her back in the water. More than that, we called in ‘Daisy May’ from dad’s yard. Moira overbooked us again.”
“I thought I didn’t recognise this one.” Trying to disguise her amusement, Malana 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 Malana another prospect of his departing figure the young boatyard owner strode (almost hurrying, she thought) down to the mooring, calling out to the elderly man. “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 your tiller nice and easy, see – there you go!”
Several tons of steel narrowboat backed out into the placid water of the canal, its inexperienced helmsman 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.” She 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, Malana 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, miles 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?”
Malana 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, one she had known for as long as she 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 odour 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 spread 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.”
Malana 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 tourist boat people 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, so he sold her on to Armand Brothers. Now she’s ‘Number Three Four Seven.’ Where’s the romance, huh?”
“He was nearly blind last time I met him.” Malana 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, I seem to recall. We were eleven years old. The rules were different.”
“My dad wouldn’t have thought so.” Malana sighed. “Twenty years!” She sat up, suddenly. “There! Did you see it? Woodpecker! 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, normally. I expect he’ll move on soon. Nineteen.”
“Nineteen 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, but reclined side by side, at one with their thoughts. Some were the times 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 Malana’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, antifouling, engine oil and 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 combat. He was short in stature and aggressive by instinct. A terrier, Malana 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.”
Malana 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?” Malana 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.”
“You’re worth so much more, I suppose.” Malana 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.”
“Yes, I suppose I must.” She said. “Don’t you ever want – anything – to be different? 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. Malana did not answer. When he turned around he saw she had gone. Such arbitrary departures were lately a peculiarity of her 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 Malana, at the sheer joy she brought him. Tomorrow she would be back, just as usual, and he would look forward to her return.
Malana set her little car popping around the twists and turns of the boatyard’s narrow lane, heading towards a village where the lane emerged onto 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 a 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 2017. 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