In these chapters Phineas Cook off the houseboat the Cluny Belle, randy pulp-crime writer and a man who likes a drink, is trying to do his best to help the estate by volunteering his services as boatman for the advertised punting trips by moonllight. By the time he and his first two customers leave the village pub it is past midnight.
Phineas led the way down to what he called the punting station, the bank astern of the paddler, where Owain’s fourteen-foot Wyre fishing punt was tied up with the Belle’s dinghy.
He pulled the punt in, side on to the bank, and held it steady while they climbed gingerly aboard, the boat moving under them.
“Mind the stick, m’dears,” he said, referring to the punting pole resting lengthways on it. “Don’t want that disappearing overboard.”
The light from Adrian’s torch moved over the craft and found the seat at the bow end, padded with purple cushions with yellow piping and tassels from the Owens’ rowing skiff.
“Park your bums,” Phineas said breezily, climbing in after them.
“That’s it, make yourselves at home.”
He lit the storm lantern he’d placed mid-boat, and turned the wick up, the white light flaring in the glass.
He beamed at them over it. “What fun this is!”
“They’re supposed to be coloured,” Adrian pointed out.
Phineas muttered something about local rags and misprints, and lit the second lamp, near the stern. And watched as the glass started to blacken.
“Perhaps it needs a new wick,” Suzanne suggested.
“Probably just needs trimming,” Adrian said with off-hand authority, sitting back against the cushions with an arm around her.
Phineas coughed and waved away smoke seeping from under the top of the glass.
“No, Suzanne’s quite right - women often, if not always, are. We’ll turn it off. Don’t want to risk a fire. The hull’s got more tar on it than the MI. Well, we may have lost a lamp but we’re still afloat, that is the main thing on the river - as indeed it is in life more generally. Comfortable?”
“Emm ...” Suzanne murmured.
The night smelt of summer and the river. A tawny owl called again from Mawr Wood on the opposite bank, its drawn-out cry drifting across the bat-hunted air. And high above the willows a yellow moon sat, as fat as butter, in the shining dark with its face in the water, the river running with its light midstream as if dissolving there. Under the trees the shadows were black, deeper pools.
“What is that?” Suzanne asked, ear cocked.
“What, the owl?” Phineas said. “It’s an owl, Suzanne.”
“No, no, not that. Listen ...”
“I can’t hear anything.”
He peered down at the floor of the punt.
“It’s not a sort of glug-glug sound, is it? Oh, good,” he said, when told it wasn’t.
“Well, it could be almost anything. There’s a whole night shift beavering away on the banks. It could be woodpigeons, seeing that it’s a full moon. They coo at it, thinking it’s a new day. Then the silly birds have to do it all again in the morning. Or bats. Up there, look. Out after a bite of supper. I’m too old now to hear them. It is a well-known fact,” he pontificated, “that only the very young can pick up the squealing of a Baubenton’s water bat. It’s a glass slipper which fits no one much over the age of twenty,” he said, opening the cardboard box holding the wine and glasses.
Suzanne, nearer thirty, smiled in an interested sort of way and said nothing.
“Well, I can hear them, and I’m thirty-two,” Adrian said, but Phineas wasn’t stopping for details.
“It’s among the other things only the very young can tune into. The sort of thing that some of us never stop hearing – or at any rate never stop listening for.”
“Is that supposed to mean anything?” Adrian asked with a derisive laugh.
“What, on a night like this? Certainly not!” Phineas said, popping a cork on one of the two dry whites. He could not bear to stint, and had added a second bottle out of own pocket to go with the one included in the fee.
“Actually, Phineas,” Suzanne said, “it’s more like a whistling sound than squealing – there it is again.”
“Otters,” Phineas said immediately. “Otters, Suzanne. There’s a holt, a burrow, downstream a bit, on what’s called Snails Eye Island, the home of a bitch otter and her cubs. She spends hours whistling at them, telling them to do this, and not to do that, and to come in, your tea’s ready, all that sort of thing. There’s no dog otter. The female of the species treats the male appallingly,” he went on, making his way forward with the bottle and two glasses. “She whistles the poor fellow up, lets him have his way with her, and then shows him the door. Wham, bam, thank you, Dan, as it were. A little fuel for the trip,” he said, pouring the wine. “I’ll leave the bottle.”
“What about you?” Suzanne said.
Phineas held up a stern hand.
“No. It’s very considerate of you, my dear girl, but no. This, Suzanne, is where I hand the night over to you. It is now yours. Yours and Andy’s alone.”
“Adrian’s” Adrian said, more to himself.
“The memories you will make together on this river, my gift to you both.”
“Ahhh!” Suzanne said. “That’s nice. Isn’t that nice, Adrian?”
Adrian opened his mouth to give his view on it, but Phineas wasn’t stopping.
“I must now,” he said, sweeping off his boater, “leave the stage. I have, as it were, brought the curtain up, and must now take my place behind the scenes. A mere pusher and puller of things, unseen and unheard.”
“Fat chance of that,” Adrian said. “Look, do you think we could actually get started? At this rate – ”
“Shhh!” Suzanne said.
“Easy to see he’s got no competition in the area,” Adrian muttered.
“The oarsman to those memories you will make. A steerer of dreams under the stars. A gondolier in the night.”
Phineas took a bow to Suzanne’s applause, and clapping his boater back on, exited to his place in the stern.
He uncoupled the mooring chain from the ring on the punting deck, and chucked it up on the bank, ready for their return. And then tossed a pair of short oars after it.
“Shan’t need those.”
“What are they?” Adrian asked suspiciously.
“Paddles,” Phineas said. “For steering. How’s the wine?”
“Super!” Suzanne said.
“That was my verdict. I sampled a bottle earlier – on your behalf, of course. Not the most expensive wine in the shop, I grant you, but surprising good, I thought.”
“You’ll be seeing pink elephants, the way you drink.”
Suzanne pulled away from him. “Adrian! You’re so rude!”
“I find life thirsty work, old man,” Phineas said equably. “And besides, what have you got against pink elephants?”
“Yes, they’re nice cuddly things,” Suzanne said. “Not like some people I could name. Cheers, Phineas!” she cried gaily.
“Happy days, old thing,” Phineas said, poking at the bank with the punting pole.
Chapter Twenty One
“Well, that’s all right then,” Adrian said to her, as the boat started to bob away from the punting station. “Because you’ll probably be seeing them yourself in the morning, the way you’ve been throwing it back.”
Suzanne glared at him, and finishing her drink in one, thrust the glass at him. Adrian sighed heavily. He poured, and then filled and drained his own.
“Now look who’s talking about throwing it back.”
“When in Rome do as the Romans do,” he said, echoing Suzanne earlier.
“You can be so childish! Well, quite frankly, Adrian, if you’re going to keep on like this, I don’t see any point in our being here. In fact, I don’t see any point in continuing the holiday at all. We might as well go straight back to London.”
“Now, now, you chaps!” Phineas said, jollying them along while pushing off before it went any further. If it came to a refund, he wasn’t sure if there was anything left to refund.
Standing on the punting deck, he was turning the boat from the stern to face towards the opposite bank. He had to cross the river to go up it, avoiding a low, tilting overhang of alders some yards up on their side, and beyond that the wreckage of the PS Sabrina. He had also to navigate the strong midstream current, a current which was even stronger now, after the rain - as Owain had made a point of reminding him at least twice that evening. Owain seemed to have a thing about that current, chuntering on about it when giving him lessons on the right way to cross it as if he, Phineas, had never been on the river before, as if he’d never used that same current to give him a push when rowing back downriver in his dinghy. Just because he’d be doing it with a punting pole instead of oars.
Adrian was murmuring now in the shadows, words for Suzanne’s ears only. Phineas was encouraged. Unless he was threatening her with murder, and understandably didn’t want a witness to it, he was making amends. And judging by her silence, she was perhaps willing to have amends made. The fee, it seemed, or whatever was left of it, was safe.
Standing as close to the water as he could without falling in it, as Owain had taught him, he dropped the pole, skimming the edge of the deck with it, and letting it fall under its own weight, sixteen foot of polished spruce, between lightly ringed fingers.
The Cluny wasn’t a particularly deep river, which was why the shallow-draught vessels of the Cluny Steamboat Company had been able to ply on it, and the pole touched bottom halfway down its length.
He lifted it clear of the water, the varnished wood dripping light.
He dropped it again and lifted, dropped and lifted, pushing out steadily towards midstream.
And doing so, if he did say so himself, with remarkably smoothness.
Apart from the odd time at school, messing about on the Thames at Windsor, and the few lessons he’d had beforehand from Owain, he had never really punted before. But there was no getting away from it, he was a natural. This, he told himself, was punting as it was spoke.
He felt as much connected to the river as he was to the punt, as much below the surface as he was above it, an inhabitant of some new dimension he’d found somewhere between the two.
He glanced over at the couple in the bow. The shadows there had merged into one. That was more like it! That was what they were supposed to be doing. A boy and girl in a punt in the moonlight. That was what it was supposed to add up to.
“You can’t beat the memories you gave me. They’re sweet those memories you gave me,” he crooned, a gondolier in the night.
“Any more wine, Phineas?” Suzanne called then.
“Coming up,” he said cheerily.
He shipped the pole, hoisting it in the air with drill-like precision, before lowering it smartly on the punt, as if following an old formality.
Adrian, watching this, said, “I’d better get it.”
“No, no, no, you stay there. I’ll do it, wearing my wardroom steward’s hat.”
Tra-la-la-ing away, Phineas set about pulling the cork on the second bottle of white, the punt idly drifting.
Lightly tripping his way forward, as nimble as a gondolier, he missed a step and his foot came down hard on the side of the boat.
“Oops! Point to starboard there, as my friend the Commander would say.”
Adrian grabbed for the gunnel that side, the punt rocking, and Phineas laughed briefly and indulgently at the sight of a landlubber with the wind up.
“Where are we going?” Suzanne asked lazily from the shadows, the punt moving through the water again, spreading ripples of moonlight in its wake.
“Where would you like to go?” Phineas said. “Name it, and we’ll go there. Trailing stars.”
And he wouldn’t be at all surprised at that. On such a night as this he felt that anything was possible, anything might happen. They scarcely intruded on its bright stillness, moving through it with so little sound and effort that he might almost have been dreaming it, the river murmuring and gurgling softly as it did many times in his sleep. A couple of feeding mallards paddled, hissing, out of their path, and a swan, carrying starched light on its wings, glided out to see what the vulgar fuss was about, before making its stately way back to the shadows under the fronds of a weeping willow.
And the shining pole was dropped and lifted, dropped and lifted again, breaking the water as quiet as a fish rising.
He hardly felt he was doing any work at all – as if he had to do any work. He felt that the punt could carry on perfectly well without him, could make its own way to wherever it was going.
Languor and enchantment, that was the essence, the very essence, of punting, he decided dreamily, and felt the sudden bump and pull of the midstream current as the boat met it bow on.
Chapter Twenty Two
He’d forgotten about the midstream current. He was supposed to be crossing it at a 45 degrees angle, he remembered, now it was too late. He was supposed to be gliding across it, letting whatever the ruddy hell Owain had said do the work for him. What he wasn’t supposed to be doing was the other thing Owain had said - the other thing he remembered him saying - the thing he was doing now, because he couldn’t think what else to do. Dancing about on the deck, pushing the pole in first one side and then the other, the punt wallowing and swinging this way and that.
The night looked far more ordinary now and, with the boat slowly but steadily being pulled downstream, increasingly predictable.
“I’ll get seasick in a minute,” Adrian said.
“Do you know anything about punting, old man?” Phineas muttered tightly.
“No,” Adrian had to admit, “as a matter of fact I don’t.”
“No, I thought not. Well, this is a punting technique for traversing a strong midstream current. Get the angle wrong and you’ll find yourself drifting downriver,” he puffed, quoting the other thing he remembered Owain saying.
“Aren’t we doing that already?” Adrian asked a few moments later.
“Aren’t we doing what?” Phineas snapped.
“Drifting downriver – if, that is, downriver’s that way.”
“Downriver is that way. But I can assure you, Andy, that we are not drifting anywhere I do not want us to drift. All right? That okay with you …?”
“If you say so. And it’s Adrian. Not Andy. Of course, I realise I’m the wrong sex, but you might at least try and get my name right, seeing as I’m a paying customer.”
But Phineas was no longer listening.
The river there was a mixture of stone and mud. And he had found the mud, the pole going in a clear couple of feet, judging by what was left his end of it. He had driven it down hard out of nothing but sheer frustrated temper, and now the mud had it. And it wasn’t letting go.
“Are you all right, Phineas?” Suzanne asked, concerned curiosity in her voice.
He had turned his back on them and was surreptitiously trying to tug it free, his shoulders heaving as if laughing, or sobbing.
“Yes, yes, I’m fine,” he said testily. “Thank you for asking!”
“We’re stuck,” Adrian told her. “We’re stuck on something. What are we stuck on?”
“We are not stuck on anything.” Phineas had tried for amused exasperation, a professional dealing with a fretful amateur, but he was almost grunting with the strain, sweat leaking from under his boater.
He was about to let the mud have it, about to act on the other piece of advice he remembered Owain giving him - if in trouble, hang on to the punt and not the pole. When it came free, suddenly.
He staggered back with it, and then lurched forward to avoid toppling into the boat, lifting it like a pole vaulter and driving it into the river again, to stop himself going overboard. He hit stone this time and pushed violently on it, past caring what happened.
The punt, thrust free of the current, bobbed gently into a stretch of slack water.
Phineas rested on his pole, puffing and blowing, taking his hat off to wipe at the sweat.
“That’s always the trickiest bit - that cross current,” he told them, shaking his head over it. “Even without all the rain we’ve had recently, it’s been the undoing of a few good watermen in the past, I can tell you. It’s famous for it. All calm on the surface, but underneath - phew, watch out!” Just like some women he could name, he thought.
“Well done, Phineas!” Suzanne said.
“I thought we were about to capsize,” Adrian said, his tone suggesting that in his opinion they were lucky not to.
“My dear fellow,” he began with heavy patience. “My dear good fellow, you can hole a punt. You can set fire to a punt. You can take an axe to a punt. You can blow a punt out of the water. But what you cannot - absolutely cannot do, is to capsize one. It simply can’t be done. Its proportions should tell you that. It’s impossible to overturn, not in the normal way of things. That’s the reason of course,” he added on a more matey note, with the danger now past, “why it’s the ideal craft for a bit of you-know-what.”
“No, I don’t know what,” Adrian said perversely.
Suzanne gave him a dig with her elbow. “You could have fooled me!”
“Don’t you Suzanne me, you little devil. Cheers, Phineas!” she cried.
“Cheers, m’dears,” Phineas said, poling on upstream, and wondering if there was anything else he should be remembering to do, or not to do.
There was a tinkle of bottle and glasses, and silence from the bow end.
And then Suzanne said, “In fact, Adrian, I sometimes feel that’s all I’m good for.”
“Now, you know that’s not true.”
“Do I? Do I, Adrian?”
“It’s just the drink talking. You know perfectly well – ” Adrian glanced over at the stern and lowered his voice.
But Phineas wasn’t interested in what he had to say – he’d heard it all before, whatever it was. He’d said it himself enough times. Besides, it was nothing to do with him, what did he know? He was only the driver.
And anyway, he had a bit of company himself now, a sheep up on one of the fields tracking him between the trees, before giving up on the idea that his appearance meant food. It was one of Vernon Watkins’s fields, the grass stiffened like frost with moonlight, the sheep out on it as still as stones.
Until Phineas stirred them up.
Vernon, he knew, had had a late lambing, and, as usual, a good crop of them. It was a well-known fact that Vernon had the randiest ram in the valley. Pan, his name was, and once he had started he didn’t stop until he’d run out of ewes. Lambing took no time at all when Pan was on the job.
“I’m a well-endowed ram and I got where I am by performing my act right on cue. When it’s time for a tup, I just line ‘em all up, and shout volunteers? Ewe, ewe and ewe,” he sang, giving it a Gilbert & Sullivan air, and finishing to a chorus of bleating from a growing audience of ewes and lambs.
Encouraged, he had just started on Old Macdonald had a Farm, a party of one his end of the punt, when Adrian, after a couple of tries, got through to him.
“That’s better! Thank you – we’re trying to talk here ...”
“I don’t think there’s any more to talk about,” Suzanne said. “I thought this trip might help clear the air. It hasn’t. I still don’t know where I stand.”
That was something else Phineas had heard before, only last week, from his girlfriend, Sally.
He felt a stab of contrition at the thought of her, and rested on his pole to consider it, while the couple bickered on in the bow.
His trouble, he told himself, was that he didn’t know when he was well off. Most men would have stopped there, once a smasher like Sally came into their lives. Sorry, they’d have said, the position’s now taken. But not him. Oh no! He had a golden bird, as it were, like Sally in the hand, and had to go beating the bushes for more. He didn’t deserve her.
She’d been right in her suspicions about the woman with the fishing shop in Kingham. Her childish – as he’d described them then – references to flies and tackle all too near the mark. He admitted that now, owned up to it. And resolved there and then that from now on things would be very different. He felt better already.
“Andy – Andy,” he said, passing it on, “we, the male of the species, can be absolute rotters!”
“Speak for yourself,” Adrian said, breaking off his muttered discussion with Suzanne.
“It behoves us to play up and play the game,” Phineas announced, sharing with him the view from his new-found moral heights. “And to play that game, Andy, with a straight bat on a level wicket. We should remember,” he further advised him, quoting at least one of his ex-wives, “that in every relationship there are two people.”
“That’s very true,” Suzanne agreed.
“In tandem together. Both going the same way.”
“Well, if you’re on a tandem,” Adrian couldn’t resist pointing out, “you have to go the same way.”
Phineas ignored it. “Love – love, Andy, is a bicycle made for two.”
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do,” Adrian sang, not at all cheerfully.
“Shhh!” Suzanne hissed.
“Well – what rot! And he knows it,”he said, jabbing a finger at Phineas. “It’s all flannel.”
But Phineas was elsewhere, firing on Sheepsnout and a new perspective.
“The male should bring to a relationship maturity, responsibility and commitment,” he went on, addressing the air and counting out the requirements with a finger.
“He should be prepared to shoulder his share of the work involved, as well as the fun – and the, you-know-what,” he added, glancing sharply at Adrian, his tone suggesting that not only did he find the expression objectionable, but that it was Adrian who had first used it.
“Peddling up the hills of that relationship together, as well as free-wheeling down them in the good times with the wind in one’s hair.”
“Sounds like a shampoo ad,” Adrian said.
“Oh, be quiet, Adrian!” Suzanne said, flapping a hand at him.
“Phineas,” she said solemnly, “I think that’s very wise. And beautifully put.”
“Pl – ease!” Adrian said.
“I don’t expect you to understand, Adrian.”
“It’s from the heart, Suzanne,” Phineas said. “A lesson learned at last.” And he couldn’t wait to tell Sally.
“It’s something you could do with thinking about,” she told Adrian.
“What! For God’s sake – what a load of …!”
“Is it? Is it, Adrian?” she asked, and laughed bitterly.
“Well – well, in that case, maybe you’d prefer him sitting with you, instead of me.”
“Maybe I would – but not for the reasons you think. It might surprise you to know, Adrian, that some men are capable of feelings above their belts.”
Adrian shot to his feet. “Right! That’s it! Come on, then, Phineas,” he said, on his way to the stern, rocking the punt in his haste to get there, “you can take my place. You can talk rubbish to her while I do the punting.”
“Now, don’t be silly,” Phineas said, “there’s a good chap.”
“Nothing silly about it. You heard her. So come on, hand over the pole, or whatever it’s called.”
“Bit of a tiff, that’s all. She didn’t mean it.”
“Oh, yes she did!” Suzanne said with emphasis. “I don’t want him sitting with him. Now or at any other time. As far as I’m concerned that’s it. It’s finished.”
“Just what I was thinking,” Adrian said to her. “Off you go,” he added to Phineas.
“Now - ”
“Come on, Phineas, leave him to it,” Suzanne said. “Come and keep me company.”
Phineas held on to the pole, his eyes darting between the two.
“It’s not my punt,” he said then, as if in appeal. “Even if I wanted to, I’ve no authority to.”
“Oh, well,” Suzanne said, “if you don’t want to. ”
“It’s not that. I didn’t mean that, it’s just – ”
“You’re not going anywhere, are you,” Adrian pointed out. “You’ll still be here, technically in charge of the vessel, won’t you.”
“You’ve been drinking,” Phineas said, coming up with another objection.
“I’ve been drinking?” Adrian snorted a laugh.
“You don’t know how to punt,” Phineas said then.
“Well, I couldn’t make a worse job of it than you. I doubt we’ve gone more than twenty yards since we started. Just tell me the basics, that’s all you need do. I’m a quick study.”
Phineas stared at him.
“Come on, Phineas,” Suzanne called softly, her eyes beckoning from beyond the single light, where she waited in a bed of shadows.
Phineas thrust the pole at him.
“Well, what do I have to do?” Adrian asked, Phineas already on his way to the bow, the punt rocking again.
“What? Oh, nothing to it, old man. Couldn’t be simpler. Just push downwards and backwards with the pole, at a sort of angle, you know, to get it going again, and then lift it and drop it again, and then – well, just push away. And for extra speed, bend your knees into the down stroke. That’s all there is to it. Have fun. Oh, and if you do get stuck, remember to hang on to the punt and not the stick,” he added, on his way past the single lantern, moths fluttering around its light, leaving Adrian muttering to himself, going over his instructions on the punting deck.
“Now what is this all about? Mmm?” he said, parking himself next to Suzanne, and patting her hand.
“How am I doing then?” Adrian asked complacently awhile later.
“Fine, Andy, you’re doing fine,” Phineas said, preoccupied. As the same sex as Adrian, he was learning just what a swine he was, holding Suzanne’s hand and murmuring sympathetically now and then.
“Yes, well, it’s not exactly difficult, is it,” Adrian said on a laugh. “I mean, it would be hard to find a more basic form of propulsion.”
“No, you’re doing splendidly, Andy, splendidly. Couldn’t do better myself,” Phineas muttered, gazing at Suzanne.
Even her teeth shone, gleaming moistly in the reflected light as she smiled at him. She smiled at him, and he smiled at her, and before he knew what was happening it had happened. They had kissed.
And if the earth didn’t move, then the punt did, rolling, unnoticed, under them.
“Soon got that sorted,” Adrian said then. The punt and got that the midstream current had suddenly met again and he wasn’t sure how it had happened, but after splashing about with the pole, trying to use it as a rudder to steer with, he found himself facing what he was sure was the other way. Up or down river, what did it matter? He’d got out of trouble midstream in half the time it had taken Phineas - and he was supposed to be the professional.
He sank the pole again with a scornful laugh in Phineas’s direction.
Not that Phineas noticed. Phineas was lost, to Sally and the new perspective, drowning in Suzanne, and going down for the third time, the third, lingering kiss, their embrace increasingly heated and desperate with murmured endearments between more kisses.
Adrian was also enjoying himself. He had really started to motor now, as he thought of it, the current doing most of the work for him. He didn’t understand why they hadn’t set off downriver in the first place. He was using the current instead of fighting it, going with the flow. After that it was just a question of rhythm and balance.
He was beginning to suspect that, despite his boasting, Phineas hadn’t a clue. He wondered, at this speed, and given that they were going the right way, how long it would take them to get to Shrewsbury.
They were fairly bowling along, Adrian bending his knees and pushing away. Past the houseboats and Snails Eye Island, and a sleeping Batch Magna, while his passengers grew more passionate in the shadows.
Running under the moon and the ruined castle on the hill, punting on down to the water meadows, past Magna and Lower Rea, Leech Meadow, Pistol and Prill Leasow, to where the fall of swollen water over Prill Weir ahead of them was like a storm wind gathering in the trees.
© Copyright 2016 Peter Maughan. All rights reserved.