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