I lay on my back, the grass bank warm under me, the blue sky fleeted with clouds. Stretching my arm out to the side, I let it fall until my fingers touched the surface of the canal. I closed my eyes, the sun on my face, the world balanced between water, land and sky, pivoting on the point where I lay, still and silent, until I heard my parents’ voices growing louder and louder.
The row of houses all had terraced gardens leading down to the canal. Some of the owners had tethered rowing boats to the bank or hauled them up to lie, overturned, rotting slowly among the weeds. Our garden and the one belonging to the Ballinns next door had a small boathouse, the relics of some grander conception which my father attributed to the fact that these, the last two in the row of old workmen’s cottages, had been set at an angle to the rest to accommodate a stubborn outcrop of rock. It cut them off a bit from the others, a state exaggerated by the planting of large shrubs and small trees along the fence separating the pair from Mr Joseph to the other side of us. He was a quiet, solitary old widower whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all lived in that same house. We only glimpsed him now and then through the foliage, tending to a rose or hoeing between his lettuces. Turn your back on him and you could see the Ballinns’ well-tended terraces, falling towards the boathouse whose upper floor they’d converted into a compact office where Mrs Ballinn wrote her novels, their beautifully painted boat Percival tethered beneath her as she worked.
Constantly undergoing repair, our own boathouse became a dump for my father’s inveterate hoarding. Hell’s Pelles, our seeping little vessel, chafed against the wooden piles edging the banks, its one remaining rowlock tipping rustily to and fro as a permanent puddle slid back and forth over its well.
“I don’t like it,” my mother said, when Dad showed her the name, its black letters still glistening on the worn hull, the brush proud in his hand. “Something unlucky about it. Why have Hell in it, just because it rhymes with our name?”
“It’s only a bit of fun, love.”
He was still holding the brush when she walked away, back up the steps of the ragged garden towards the house, another in the line of little leavings she practised over the years before the final one.
My father worked for the same building firm as Mr Ballinn, only he was on the office side of the business, whereas Mr Ballinn was one of the builders. Dad would come back from work in a suit to find Mr Ballinn in shorts, his hair covered in plaster dust, his tanned face smiling handsomely as he chatted to my mother. He had bright blue eyes and a strong voice, deepened by the cigarette always dangling from his lips. He often worked at weekends on private jobs.
“How’s Elaine?” Dad would ask, loosening his tie after locking the car.
“Have a guess?” Mr Ballinn would grin.
“Not written another one, has she?” Mum would ask.
“Yes, Gwen, number twelve.”
“Regular Jane Austen.” She smiled at him, a scrap of mockery shared between them.
Friday afternoons made me uneasy. The weekend would bustle in on a wave of promise, Dad busy searching for materials and tools which he could never find for a job round the house which he’d never finish. He’d pop out to the builder’s merchant on the edge of town, get side-tracked and return, sheepish and full of excuses, to bluster through the hours that he couldn’t stop from slipping away from him. Sunday repeated the farce, only with less conviction. By its end, another stillborn job lay among the debris of its attempt, goading Mum into complaint – the dominant, strung-out refrain haunting their marriage.
The worst weekends didn’t survive that far, Saturday afternoon collapsing as I retreated upstairs to put a closed door between myself and the rising voices below. Sunday would see Dad exiled to the shed on the edge of the first garden terrace, while Mum seethed her way through preparing a roast we’d eat in muzzling silence. By the evening – my heart already lightened with Monday’s approaching grace – I’d find Dad still in his shed pottering among the chaotic underemployment of his tools when I came to tell him that Mum had gone out and left some cold meat and salad for our supper, and he’d look up at me with an unconvincing conspiratorial grin, before announcing:
“A tasty bit of cold; that’ll do us nicely!”
And it was from this shed, too – or rather from where I stood just hidden behind it, one unseasonably warm autumn afternoon when we’d been let out early from school – that I looked across to the Ballinns’ patio and saw, on the long wooden table at which they ate when the weather permitted – at which we’d eaten with them several times – my mother lying back in her partly undone summer dress, the warm sun on her bared breast and on the back of Mr Ballinn’s head as it bobbed between her bent legs, his hands grasping her dress, the gathered folds of its gold-yellow material crowning his temples.
During his best man’s speech at my wedding, my father referred to my new wife as Pelles’ belle. Seated with her new husband, my mother winced. They left early, bound for the Caribbean.
“Larry’s treating me,” she said, pressing a large cheque into my hand. “Good luck!” she added, as if I’d need it. After she left us, I always felt that I reminded her too much of Dad and of what she’d wasted. Not that she was hard on me. More that it had taken so much for her to break free of him, of the life that had consumed so much of her, that I think she pitied me, tethered for ever by half my genetics.
We honeymooned in Ireland, staying at a castle that had been converted into a hotel. Its extensive grounds held a large lake round which we walked in the evening, watching the fishermen huddled by their small round tents: intense, solitary figures, their eyes fixed on a pair of rods pointing down to the water’s tin stillness. I’d fished on and off most of my childhood, but not with their depth of calling; I became bored and distracted, wandering away from the water and my rarely-troubled float. Later, I went fishing more to be out of the house, away from Mum and Dad, some days not even bothering to unpack my gear, just wandering the canal side, eating up the miles and the hours.
“Don’t they get fed up? They never catch anything!” whispered my wife after we’d passed them in respectful silence. As the days went by, though, I began to see these men differently. Searching the water’s elusive promise, they seemed engaged in something greater than themselves, their concentration a form of discipline, an exercise in skill and patience, a powerful commitment in the face of unconvincing odds. And their solitude touched me, their little huts like outposts of some doomed belief, diminutive castles raised by a driven, silent passion. It seemed almost romantic.
“Musing upon the king my brother’s wreck?”
“What?” I jumped; I hadn’t heard her approach.
“Sorry. I surprised you.” She was standing on the towpath.
“No, it wasn’t … I was miles away, Mrs Ballinn.”
“Any luck?” She stood beside me, staring past the tip of my rod at the cloudy green water.
“Sometimes I don’t think there are any fish in here.”
“But you still try?” She said this kindly. I smiled at her and shrugged. She was small, her slight frame lost beneath her clothes, her expression restless and intelligent as she scanned the surface.
“It’s not bad, sitting here, away from …” I saw Mum and Mr Ballinn again, the sun on her breast and his bobbing head, her yellow dress rumpled up.
“Yes, you need that sometimes.” There was something in her voice, confessional and with a hint of pity, which made me think she knew. We stayed in the silence together, sharing what couldn’t be said.
I opened the door. My wife was sleeping, the early grey-blue light soft on the patches of mascara smudged beneath her eyes. She seemed older, more tired. I don’t know if she’d slept much; I hadn’t. My throat was sore, last night’s last words shouted through this door at each other. She’d be relieved when she woke and found me gone for the day.
I drove towards the pink-stain of the horizon, torn, tinged clouds above it scudding away as if scared of the coming light. By the time I parked by the lake, a great gold-red spill poured across it from the east. The sound of my cast hitting the water hung for a moment in the peace, before the float righted itself proud of the surface, its bright orange tip flaring in the new day.
Like some echo from my childhood, it was the breakdown of my marriage that had sent me back to the water’s edge. Sitting, watching my float on the surface, or the waterbirds busy in the shallows on the far bank where the breeze cajoled the trees, I was able to banish the crumbling world at home. Whole trance-like weekends passed alone, quiet as the ripples, their effortless lack of event lulling me so that I’d return home monkish and calmed, my voice gentle. It seemed to offer some promise of a way through.
I was on school holidays. Dad was staying away for a business trip. It was early, the sun already warm through the bedroom window. After breakfast, I loaded my rod and tackle onto my bike. Mr Ballinn was working at home, taking advantage of the good weather, his drill driving through the silence. Their back door opened and Mrs Ballinn stepped out into the sun, a flask under one arm. She picked her way delicately among the brightly bloomed beds, down towards their boathouse which seemed to float like a tiny castle on the glistening water. I shouted up to Mum that I was going. She was at her dressing table, doing her makeup, singing softly to herself. As I cycled away, all I could hear was Mr Ballinn drilling.
“This,” said Dad, his open arms gesturing towards the boathouse’s silvered and rickety form, “is what sold the place to me. What d’you think, Gwen, eh?”
“And the boat, Dad … can we go in the boat?”
“Well, it needs a bit of work, but basically they’ve told me it’s sound.”
“How much work?” Mum asked.
“Dunno yet, love, but nothing that’s beyond us. I told you, the guy next door’s just started at the firm; he said he’ll be happy to lend a hand. I mean, look what they’ve done with their place.”
“When do we meet them?”
“I said we’d pop over when we’ve finished looking. Ballinn’s his name; his wife’s a writer.”
“It’s great, Dad!”
“You like it, son?”
While they spoke to the Ballinns, I walked back down to the water. I’d never known that a house could have a river or a canal at the end of its garden. And your own boat, parked like a car, floating in its own watery garage. It seemed so strange, so exotic.
“Now remember,” said Dad as we drove away, “we don’t want to count our chickens. There’re still other people interested; it’s not ours yet.”
“When will we know, Dad?”
“I’ve asked them to let us know as soon as.” I could tell by his voice that he was excited.
“Soon as, son. Soon as.” We drove on in silence for a while. “They seemed nice, eh Gwen, next door?” He looked anxiously at her.
“Did you see what he’d done with their kitchen? He knows his stuff, alright.”
“Oh, you can tell, Gwen.”
She stared out at the world rushing by her. “Yes.”
As things got worse in my marriage, I needed them more, those wordless hours of light and water. In summer, I fished the evenings or early mornings before work, an acolyte at the dawn, hunched and reverent. I booked trips further afield, long weekends and bank holidays, then whole weeks by a loch or on the distant wild banks of some great river. One day a couple passed me with their young child as I sat by my dark green tent, two carbon-hued rods aimed at the dapple-worried silver grey and nothing around me but birdcall and the wide air thick with the smell of damp vegetation. I nodded at them and they moved on, each holding one of the child’s hands, their voices hushed.
Mum watched with her arms folded. Dad wobbled the boat as he tried to fix the oars in the rowlocks, splashing each blade in turn into the water.
“Quiet! Dad,” I said, urgently. “You’ll scare them.”
“There won’t be a fish left in this bit of the canal,” said Mum, shaking her head before she walked up to the house.
“I’ll row along to a quiet bit, Gwen, then I’ll let it drift.” Seeing that she’d gone, he looked at me. “Don’t worry. Give it a couple of minutes, then cast out here. Mum doesn’t understand; these canal fish are more confined, they’re used to noise.”
I watched him try to row past Mr Joseph’s garden, skewing across till he hit the far bank, the jolt knocking one of the oars from his hand. I knelt resentfully on the grass and joined the halves of my rod together. I hadn’t even had a bite when, an hour later, he splashed awkwardly back, one of the rowlocks broken, simultaneously trying to scull with one oar and bail with the cup from his thermos flask.
“She’ll need some work, but for a first attempt, it wasn’t bad,” he said as he grabbed the bank with one hand, the dirty water washing over his feet in the well.
My wife looked out the window as she spoke, her voice thin with exhaustion.
“You can’t pretend to be surprised.”
“No,” I answered. I felt relieved. It was over, unchallenged and life-altering, but with none of the chaos unleashed when my mother had left: my father wailing pitifully, his face unrecognisable in its boyish terror and pain, Mum screaming what did he expect, how could he not have known, how was she supposed to grow old with such a man, such a lack?
The removal men had just left; already we were missing the forced politeness their presence had imposed. The empty rooms echoed with resentment as we collected up the last scraps of our days by the water. By the boathouse, I watched the last clouds scattering across the canal’s dimpled shine. A couple of uneven lengths of forgotten timber stuck out from the nettles. Knowing Dad wouldn’t leave them, I was about to pick them up when I saw Mrs Ballinn standing by the fence.
“Takes longer than you think, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” I stopped near her. “Especially when …” I nodded up to the house. “I’m just taking what’s left,” I added.
She looked past me, along the canal to where a tunnel of overhanging trees blackened the water. “It’s brave … really. Your Mum and Dad. I know it won’t seem so, but … well, I think …” She took a breath and seemed about to continue, but paused, lowering her gaze.
I felt awkward. “I don’t know. You don’t argue, you two.” I nodded towards their house.
“No. But I never asked the right questions, the ones I knew I should. The ones …” She didn’t look at me. She seemed to have run out of words.
Behind her, their boathouse was poised immaculately, Percival’s bow nosing into the canal. She turned suddenly and walked towards it. “I hope you find what you need,” she said, before opening the door to her office.
Dad closed the door to the ticket hut behind him and locked the car park gate.
“Don’t want any latecomers. They try it on, you know. Come on, I’ll show you the moat.” He pointed with his walking stick towards a signpost at the far end of the car park.
“You be alright?” I looked at him.
“Yeah! Do it all the time. Long as I take it slow.”
He led me to the signpost, where we joined a footpath running along the side of a hedge. “There’s a wheelchair-friendly route as well, but this is more direct,” he said, with a touch of pride. We rounded a bend, the hedge veering off to our left and the ruined castle suddenly in front of us, its light brown moat unruffled in the windless evening. “There!” he said proudly, stopping and pointing with his stick again.
“Wow!” My voice sounded thin. “It’s something!” I added.
“Isn’t it! The most complete turret’s round the far side. Wait till you see the fish, though. Some of them are massive. There’s a local myth that …” As he spoke, I followed his slow progress to the castle’s hidden side, where we stood by the water, a pair of ducks paddling hopefully towards us. “There! See?” He jabbed his stick at a dark grey curve that broke the surface thirty yards from us, a lazy motion gliding slowly away. “Some evenings and mornings there are dozens of them, though the really big ones are quite elusive.”
We stood in the quiet, watching several more forms rise from the murk to ripple the stillness before sinking back again. I thought it best to get it over with.
“Mum’s … she’s getting married again.” I was surprised at my heart, fast in my chest, its beats echoing in the silence after I spoke.
“Did she …?”
“Angela told me. Said it was better from a friend.”
“I only found out this week. I thought I’d tell you when I saw you.”
“That’s fine.” He shook his head a little. “Number three, eh? Another … She’s got … Yes.” He looked ruefully at the lake, as if it held the sum of all the distance that had grown between him and the only woman he’d ever loved. He seemed old and sad. We stared at the fish for a while and the ripples dying away imperceptibly. “Look, I’ll let you have a wander round while I go and do the cashing up. Come back down when you’re ready.” He walked a few awkward steps, then turned back to me. “You know, it’s a shame you don’t fish anymore; I’m sure they’d let you here, if I asked my boss.” I nodded and watched him limp slowly away, stabbing at the earth with his stick.
Mum sat with her back to the French windows, her shadowed head down. I knew she’d been crying even before she lifted her face.
“I’m sorry, Mum,” I said, before my throat closed.
“Why? It’s not your fault.” I put my hand on her shoulder, and she laid hers on top of it. I bent down and kissed her head, the faint smell of perfume stirring as she leant into me. “It’s us who should be sorry.”
She went out later, returning at midnight to Dad’s insistent questioning, her answers becoming more and more angry. I put my headphones on, the shouts drowning immediately in the music.
Waking early, I dressed, packed some food in a rucksack and strapped the fishing tackle to my bike. Dewdrops were falling from the leaves in the front gardens as I rode past the row of houses and on along the lane into the dawn chill, the canal below me still covered with drifts of mist from which the trees on both banks rose like dark, misshapen creatures guarding the hidden waters beneath.
Craig Dobson's fiction has appeared in Active Muse, The Adelaide Literary Magazine, Better Than Starbucks, Black Works, The Delmarva Review, The Eunoia Review, Flash, Flash Fiction Magazine, The Frogmore Papers, Halfway Down the Stairs, The Interpreter’s House, Literally Stories, Rue Scribe, Runcible Spoon and Short Fiction.