Pulp.net - Ebb Tide

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May 2009
EBB TIDE

Margot Taylor
Our mugs of tea grow cold after she tells me ‘Cancer, Henry.’ I can only sit, for as long as she wants me there, and wonder what she’s thinking, while the rain spits and the waves slap, and the old oyster smack lifts at her mooring.
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A curlew calls, somewhere off over the mud-banks, and Jane says ‘Listen to that.’ She must have heard the sound a thousand times. But Jane will emerge to watch swans beat the water in take-off; she’s first to spot a seal or the frightened scatter of fry when the mackerel come up river. She can watch the tide rise and fall without feeling there’s a better way to use her time.

‘I’m never going to leave Gypsy,’ she says. She rummages and pulls out a vintage Dom Perignon. ‘I’ve hung on to this for years. But I want to drink it now.’

River Gypsy, caught in an eddy, starts to swing. The oaks on the shore travel past the window, then slide back again. I fill and later refill our glasses. The wind gusts, the boat swings and tilts, the champagne tastes exquisite.

‘Henry, I can’t leave her,’ she tells me again.

‘If it came to it you could live with me,’ I say, and then wish I hadn’t. I might have to wash her. Feed her. There would be pain and mess. We are neighbours, not lovers. I remember there is a son, somewhere on land.

‘Don’t be ridiculous, Henry,’ she says. ‘I couldn’t possibly live in that scruffy tub of yours. And anyway, it’s time you went. Really went. How long have you been telling me you’re off?’

She is right, I think, as I row a haphazard course back to Spray. I have stayed too long on the river. I am sick of mud at low tide, close wooded hills, two-storey ferries packed with tourists, the wash from speeding weekenders.

Spray IV is steel, a hotch-potch, modified or added to whenever I’ve had time in a new port or money in my pocket. She loves to sail, leaps forward at the touch of a breeze. Nothing, not even the many lovers, in many ports, has kept us from sailing, until this apathy, seeped into me from the slow river. My poor boat’s ropes are green, her deck paint is flaking, weed and mussels dangle from her bottom. She has become a rank badger’s sett, the bolt-hole of a lone male. To sleep I slide into a quarterberth already occupied by two damp oars, spare fenders and a toolbox. Every locker is jammed, every surface covered. If Jane moved in there wouldn’t be a square inch to stow her things.

I watch as Jane’s son visits and takes her to the hospital for treatment and returns her home again. I call on some days but not others. I make no offers except to shop but I buy little extras, a ripe mango or some dark chocolate. I check for the gleam of Gypsy’s oil-lamps each evening. Then Ken the harbour master tells me Jane was rushed to hospital in the night. The following day that she is stable but weak.

‘Her son will be with her,’ I say. ‘I’ll drop by soon; but I must get to work on Spray, and be off before the autumn gales.’

A week, two weeks and more go by. I drink too much tea and watch branches and bits of polystyrene float past. I hear geese overhead. It’s only afterwards I realise I never saw them, but looked instead to see if Jane had stuck her head out. Then one day Gypsy is gone, her mooring empty. I call up Ken but get no reply. I tear down the river, push into the crush of tenders at the town pontoon. I hurry through streets clogged with summer visitors. Yes, they tell me at the hospital, she’s here. I am shown to a thin old woman, propped on pillows.

‘Haven’t you gone yet? I thought you’d be halfway across Biscay by now.’

Unmistakably Jane.

‘Get me out of here,’ she says. ‘This place is killing me.’

I find a wheelchair and wheel her down to the front. A yacht tacks out to the river mouth; Ken lifts a hand as he passes in his launch; the gulls swoop and scream. Jane is too busy taking it all in to say much. This visiting the sick seems a small, easy thing after all.

But back on the ward she’s still quiet.

‘Does your son visit?’

‘Often enough.’

Presumably she knows Gypsy has been moved? Sold? I daren’t ask. I glance around at the other sick people, reduced to tubes and blank faces and open mouths.

‘Have you made friends?’

Jane doesn’t bother to answer. Perhaps it was a stupid question but at least I am trying. She doesn’t seem to be. She didn’t mean, when she said ‘get me out of here’, she didn’t mean out of here for good? No-one could expect that. Is she harking back to the offer I made? When I distinctly remember she turned me down. And told me I was ridiculous.

‘Look out the window,’ Jane says.

I see the tops of trees that do not slide past.

‘You’ve no idea how hard it is to sleep on land,’ she says. It’s all so bloody solid.’

Sleeping inside a boat is like being in a giant womb. There is a constant shifting and stirring, murmuring and creaking. You are held and protected. But I don’t say any of this to Jane.

I get back to Spray and look her over and make a list. I take her to town and lean her against the harbour wall. I dry her out and scrub her bottom and antifoul her. I buy new warps and check her rigging and have the sails valeted. I treat her to an anchor windlass to save my back. I stock up on non-perishables like lentils and rice and tins of corned beef. To stow them I do a big clearout of stuff I’ve kept for years like lengths of spare chain and an old mainsail.

Back on the mooring I varnish woodwork, paint out lockers, paint her deck and hull until she gleams.

At night I take down books by my old sailing heroes and adventurers, returning again and again to Slocum, whose boat has been the namesake for every boat I’ve owned. Who after a lifetime of single-handed voyages disappeared at sea, presumed run down by a tanker, or hit by a whale. It’s the way to go, doing what you love, no hanging about with lost faculties.

We are looking great, both of us, and feeling great, almost ready for the off. Spray strains and snatches at her mooring. ‘Patience, old girl,’ I tell her. I have a picture, it is in my head all the time, of the moment when I will show her to Jane, how I will wheel Jane down to the river front and there Spray will be, looking wonderful, gleaming.

I deflate the tender and tie it on deck. I stow the sail cover. I run the engine, startling some waders which take flight from the muddy bank.

I slip the mooring and Spray trickles downriver, past Gypsy’s empty mooring, past a heron poised on the wooded shoreline, past the rotting barge and the boatyard with its cranes and slings.

She rounds a corner and the river opens up on either side, the town plastered to the hillside, the car ferry crossing ahead of us, the rowing crews and commercial crabbers, all the regular users. From nowhere a rib tears across my bow, cutting a deep swathe. But nothing can unsettle me, for we are on our way, out of here. But first, Jane. I check for space on the town pontoon and get my shorelines ready.

‘Do you see Spray?’

I shouldn’t need to point. She’s here, right in front of us. Jane is looking but somehow just missing. When she turns her face that’s all it is. A turned face. Her grip is so tight, so claw-like on my arm I want to shake it off.

‘I don’t believe it,’ I say. ‘You can’t see, can you? Why didn’t you tell me?’

‘When could I have done that, Henry? When exactly? Or perhaps I should’ve asked Ken to pass on the message.’

I want her to see Spray. I want her to be amazed. I say nothing, afraid of sounding childish.

We watch the usual busy river stuff. I watch it. After a bit Jane says ‘Can I sit on her?’

‘No,’ I say. ‘Too complicated.’

‘Fiddlesticks,’ she says. ‘You’re scared.’

I push her back to the hospital. I don’t tell her I’m leaving. I stump around the shops, doing my last few jobs. A shoulder whacks into me. ‘Watch where you’re going,’ I mutter without looking up. ‘Bloody people.’

I give Spray a shove, step on deck, throw the lines down in a tangled heap. I haul the main up. Cut the engine. Tug at the genoa which cracks and fills. The boat surges forward. The only sound is of waves slapping the hull.

I’m used to feeling lonely surrounded by people; but I have never felt so alone at sea before. Spray pulls on, away from the coast, and I am in utterly the wrong place. My friend Jane is stranded in a hospital bed. And I am a blind fool. Wasn’t it for her I cleaned and painted the boat and emptied lockers?

‘I hope she’ll have us,’ I say to Spray as we blow back into port.

• • • 

‘Henry?’

‘Yes.’

‘You’ve come.’

‘Yes.’

‘My grab bag,’ Jane says. ‘Under my bed. It has morphine, clothes, a letter from my doctor.’

The nurse helps her get dressed. I fetch a wheelchair. A porter carries her bag and a pile of hospital pillows. When we get to the boat Jane stands and we help her on. She’s so light she nearly takes off. I hold her steady, put my arms right around her. We’re just standing there, filled up with standing there, when the porter taps me on the shoulder. He has the wheelchair in the cockpit for us. I thank him and say goodnight.

Jane, seated, reaches out and runs a finger along the smooth new paint.

‘You’ve done her up beautifully,’ she says.

I cast off and an ebb tide carries us swiftly away. It is almost dark and the lights have come on; the town lights reflected broad and mellow, dancing in the river, and the navigation lights burning red and green, guiding us out. Spray is barely noticed by the holidaymakers still strolling on the front. She pauses, head to wind, while I raise the main. Then she moves on, beyond the castle at the river mouth, straight out to sea.

© Margot Taylor 2009

This story was shortlisted for the 2009 Willesden Herald Prize and appears in the associated anthology New Short Stories 3.
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