Missing the Boat by Vivian Oldaker


MISSING THE BOAT

Ted sat on the scrubby grass, watching the water slap against the peeling hull of the rowing boat. The rope mooring it to the jetty was old and frayed; it belonged to the people in the house opposite. They would soon have to replace the rope or risk losing the boat, which had certainly seen better days. It had a name, but Ted couldn’t bring the blur of letters into focus. He took his binoculars from the front pocket of his rucksack and the words “Summer Promise” swam into view.

The sun was burning the top of his head; he had neglected to bring his old straw trilby to the river. It was August; the heat relentless and seemingly endless.

Three rambunctious teenage boys occupied the nearby bench. It bore an inscription:

“In Memory of Daphne Roberts Who Loved This Place 1934 – 2018.” In fact Daphne, Ted’s wife, hadn’t particularly loved this place; she’d preferred the spot down by the weir but as that was already blessed with two benches, he’d gone against her wishes. He had seldom done so while she lived.

Today was one of those days when Ted felt bleary and bleak. A rook

in a nearby alder tree gazed down at him beadily.

The sun ducked behind a cloud and a feeble breeze stirred the still air. Across the water, a hissing, spitting, sprinkler assaulted the lawn of the sprawling bungalow. It hadn’t rained for weeks but such wastefulness offended Ted

A fat young man came out of the house wearing a black baseball cap, black jeans and black t-shirt; an odd choice of attire for such a hot day. Perhaps, thought Ted, he was one of those goths, like the grandson of his friend and neighbour John. The youth waddled around the sprinkler to inspect the boat, looked across at Ted, and then retreated back indoors.

Ted remembered the dryness of Kenya, where he and Daphne had lived for a decade in an almost colonial style when he worked for Shell. It was in Mombasa that Daphne had lost the baby after a particularly rowdy Saturday night dinner dance.

She’d been about five months pregnant, They didn’t have scans in those days, certainly not in East Africa; the gestational calculation down to arithmetic and guesswork. The doctor, a kindly man named O’Connor, said it was “just one of those things.” Funny, thought Ted, that he could remember the doctor’s name from all those years ago but struggled to recall the name of John’s grandson, a decent young chap despite his wonky black eyeliner and pierced lip.

There had been no more pregnancies. Daphne had never wanted children in the first place and Ted was frankly terrified at the prospect of fatherhood. While love would not have been deficient, he doubted his ability to raise a child to cope with the world. He had never found it easy himself.

A tickle of ants ran over the mountain range of his hand. How simple to be such a creature, to live and strive aiming only for the greater good, selfless and unheeding. They were after the remains of someone’s ice cream, a pink splat on the grass, a feast fallen from the sky.

Ted took his flask from his backpack along with a biography of Cole Porter. He read a few pages, but it was hard to concentrate. He took a swig of water from his flask, wishing he’d brought beer instead. Still, he could no longer drink as he once had and he wanted neither the danger nor the indignity of a wobbly walk home along the riverbank. At his age, the threat of a broken hip was real. It had ambushed John, who had tripped over his cat.

Pneumonia; they used to call it “The old man’s friend,” but John had done his best to fight off its advances.

When Ted visited him in hospital, John’s constant refrain was to blame the cat while simultaneously asking Ted to: “Take care of Tilly if I don’t make it.” He hadn’t made it.

Ted was, however, prevented from assuming continued responsibility for John’s feline assassin by John’s son, whose daughter – the gothic grandson’s younger sister – had demanded its possession.

Ted had been somewhat relieved. He had always preferred dogs, though he hadn’t lived with one since Daphne had died. Potter had been a tiny mixed-breed, described by Daphne as a Chimeranian. Potter had only outlasted his owner by a month; perhaps sensing that Ted, while dutiful in his care, was never likely to display the abject devotion that both Potter and Daphne had considered his due.

Daphne had named the animal after an old friend from the Kenya days. Ted had been perplexed by the choice. Potter the man had been large and hearty; the acknowledged leader of the hard-drinking, hedonistic crew. Potter the dog was small and shivery.

Daphne was not known for an ironic sense of humour. When he asked about it she said:

“I was fond of Potter – and little Potter has the same eyebrows.”

Man Potter and Daphne had spent many hours together, swimming in the ocean. Potter with his flabby, hair-speckled back rising from the water like a pale walrus; Daphne with her efficient crawl.

It was possible that Potter and Daphne had shared more than an enthusiasm for swimming, but if his wife had fallen for Potter’s sweaty charms, she had at least been discreet. Potter had returned to England six months before them and there had been no further contact, save for Christmas 1968, when Potter had sent a card enclosing a photo of himself standing next to a small motorboat.

On the back he had written: “Here’s me with my latest, squeeze: SWELL PARTY. Isn’t she gorgeous? Moored near Lymington. Would be super to see you aboard some time.”

Daphne had propped the photo on the mantelpiece. She had taken it down several times, gazing at it, chuckling at the choice of name well into the New Year. On twelfth night Ted had said:

“You can go see Potter, if you like.”

But Daphne had told him not to be so ridiculous. She had become a stickler for respectability once they had settled in Surrey; constantly concerned with what the neighbours might think, forever keen to keep her head below the parapet of decorum.

Their semi-detached home was a symphony in beige; any other choice in interior design considered by Daphne to be “showy.” After her death, Ted had purchased a pair of blue cushions for the sofa and a framed photographic print of Portofino to place above the mantelpiece. These items went a little way to liven up the monotone in their sterile sitting room.

When sorting through Daphne’s things after her death, he had found the photograph of Potter, faded and somewhat creased, in her underwear drawer. Ted did not know whether its location was in any way significant. He had not seen it since that long-ago Christmas. “Hallo, Potter,” he’d said, looking at it. “Hallo, Potter, you old bastard. Still alive? I doubt it, Matey.”

Vapour trails crossed the sky, blurring into the remaining patch of blue. “Enough to make a sailor a pair of trousers,” his mother would have said. Ted needed to pee but still he could not stir himself to go home. He felt as though he was waiting, but for what he had no idea.

A vintage Riva slid past, bringing in its wake a memory of an Italian holiday, forty years ago; Ted and Daphne, James and his wife Dolly, who was also Daphne’s sister. The villa had been large and draughty and splendid. One night he and James had jumped on the scooter provided and swerved down the hill to an open-air bar where a covers band was playing. As the musicians launched into Dire Straits’ ‘Water of Love,’ Ted and James had kissed in the shadows, while the unsuspecting sisters slumbered in their beds.

Riding back up the hill, Ted had wrapped his arms around James and rested his head on his warm back.

They were all dead now, Daphne, James and Dolly. Ted was the last man standing. He and James had shared just one more kiss on the final night of the holiday. “Blame it on the moonlight.” James had said.

After that Ted had done his best to avoid him, facilitated by the epic quarrel between the sisters about – what? He couldn’t remember. Thinking of James now, a sadness he’d kept buried for many years rose into his throat. He’d locked his feelings away. Nothing could ever come of them; it was best not to dwell on what might have been, had they both been younger and braver.

Or if he had – there was no telling how James might have responded given any further encouragement.

Daphne was a demon for holding grudges and they had not attended the funerals of his in-laws. James had pre-deceased Dolly and, a few months after his death, a small package had arrived for Ted. Inside was a note written in Dolly’s shaky hand:

“Dear Ted, James wanted you to have this. Sorry you did not come to funeral. Hope you are both well.” It was a small-scale model of a red Vespa.

“What a ridiculous thing to send!” Daphne had said. “Put it in the charity bag.”

He had not put it in the charity bag. It was in his pocket right now and his fingers closed over it as they had so often in the years since.

Not long after James’ death they had been drinking tea on their small concrete patio when Daphne had looked up from her magazine and said, apropos of nothing:

“Do you think James was a poofter?”

“What makes you say that?” Ted put his mug down carefully.

“It’s in this article – how to tell if your partner’s gay. I remember the way he used to look at you sometimes, like he wanted to eat you up. Barking up the wrong tree. And he had some very flamboyant shirts; they weren’t even fashionable then.“

“Can’t say I noticed,” Ted lied. “Any more of these biscuits?”

“Dolly never hinted,” Daphne said. “But then, that’s Dolly; daft as a brush. Most women would know, but I suppose if James was in the cupboard she might have been blissfully unaware.”

“In the closet.”

“What?”

“The expression is in the closet, not in the cupboard.”

“Tomayto tomarto. Anyway, closet’s American. You know I don’t like Americanisms.”

The death of James might have marked a rapprochement between the sisters but it did not. Ted and Daphne had only learned of Dolly’s death three years later through her solicitor; she had left everything – a not inconsiderable sum – to a donkey sanctuary in Devon, but had earmarked a photo of their parents in a silver frame for Daphne. “Typical!” Daphne had said. She had not put the photo on display. Possibly the frame was too ornate for her taste.

Ted had pins and needles in his left leg. A pleasure boat chugged past. Several passengers stood on deck including, Ted was surprised to see, his late wife. Daphne beckoned, using her whole arm in the impatient way she’d had when he hadn’t complied with sufficient alacrity. Ted looked away at the weeping willow and when he looked back the boat had disappeared under the ironwork bridge.

A woman approached with a terrier. The dog licked his hand.

“Are you alright?” she asked.

“Fine and dandy,” Ted said, though he wasn’t.

He stroked the dog’s feathery ears. “Just watching the world go by.”

“You should sit on the bench, the grass is getting damp,” she said reprovingly.

The boys had gone. How much time had passed?

“Perhaps I will,” Ted said, “in a minute.”

He walked stiffly to the bench, sat. The woman strolled on, looking back doubtfully.

Ted rubbed his thumb over the lettering on the brass plate.

“What a fool I was, Daphne,” he said out loud.

The sun dimmed again and now the wind had a sharper edge to it. A self-satisfied swan in full sail turned its head to look at Ted, making him smile, despite his discomfort.

The old rowing boat across the water finally broke free and began to drift downstream followed by another pleasure boat, moving more slowly than the one bearing Daphne.

A single passenger stood on deck. Ted leaned forward to get a better view. James – dear departed, deeply beloved, never forgotten – James was leaning against the rail. He blew Ted a kiss, then beckoned gently with one finger.

The teenage boys found Ted at the water’s edge when they returned a while later equipped with cider cans.

“My first dead body,” one of them said. “Poor old fucker.”

“At least he’s smiling,” his friend took several photos on his phone, lobbed an empty can into the choppy water then called the emergency services, already anticipating the reaction to the story of their evening as it splashed and rippled out through cyberspace.

-END-

About the author:

Vivian Oldaker lives in a Wiltshire village and has written a number of novels and short stories. Her Young Adult novel “The Killer’s Daughter” was published by Andersen Press (Random House). Since attending an outreach programme run by Angie Street, she has mostly concentrated her efforts on writing plays. In addition to writing in all its forms except poetry (she’s rubbish at verse, she couldn’t be worse) Vivian loves the seaside, travel, Cava, reading and idling about.

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