They mate for life, don’t they?

Bob takes pride in doing things properly. The trouble with women on boats is that they don’t take the trouble, he thought, re-tying Jean’s amateur round turn and two half-hitches, and coiling the rope into a neat round place-mat.

Jean was washing up in the galley. He could hear her splashing about, talking nonsense to the swans that had pitched up in the hope of scrounging some bread. He’d told her before, the more you feed them, the more they bother you. And they get aggressive, those mute swans. Jean laughs when they poke their heads through the hatch; thinks it funny when they snatch the crusts out of her hands. Bob doesn’t like them invading his boat, his Lady Sylvia, black robber masks across their eyes, making those weird hissing sounds.

‘You’ll only encourage them,’ he called.

‘They’ve got a cygnet with them,’ Jean shouted back. ‘It’s really sweet. Fluffy. Aren’t you, lovie? Feathers all stubby and brown…’ she broke into off-key song.

Bob went to check the bilges.

Jean rummaged through her handbag for her mobile. She’d not spoken to their daughter since the weekend. Sylvia was pregnant with her second and had grown enormous, heavy, like Jean had been with her. Jean took a photo of a swan with its head through the hatch, and texted it to her; that’d make her laugh. Most things made Sylvia laugh. She’d been a happy child, and she’d loved their family boating holidays. It had been so much fun, with the three of them.

Bob watched the oily water glug out of the bilge pump with a frown. There were regulations about that. He’d have to get one of those filter thingies. He reached for the mop and scrubbed away the traces of oil from the spotless navy and white paintwork.

He stopped dead. There was a scrape, a smudge of red paint, all along the hull. Dammit! Bob knew when that had happened. They’d been snug in the lock; he’d been on board, holding the boat steady with ropes, while Jean wound the paddles and started to close the gates.

But not fast enough. There’d been a furious tooting, and a 60-foot hire boat, crewed by half a dozen young men in sailor hats and stripy teeshirts, came barrelling down the canal towards them. A floating stag party. He’d been furious, but canal etiquette meant he had little option but to submit, trying to keep her steady as they roared into the lock, laughing their silly heads off as they glanced off the lock walls and knocked against the Lady Sylvia.

Worse, one of the men had taken over winding the paddles from Jean, who at least knew you had to go slowly in an uphill lock. Jean had surrendered the lock handle with a giggle. ‘Thanks, lovie, I get that puffed out,’ she’d told the muscle-bound youngster, who promptly stripped off his teeshirt and set to at a fierce pace.

The water had come thundering in as the paddles shot up, throwing the boats around.

‘Slow down! You need to go slowly!’ Bob had shouted, waving his arms. Cheerily, the men waved back, beer cans in hand. The gushing water drowned out his protests, and he’d been fully occupied trying to hold the Lady Sylvia clear of the gate overhang.

Afterwards, the men had ribbed him about letting Jean do all the heavy work. ‘You’ve got the easy bit, mate!’ shouted one. ‘About time you let the lady drive.’

Bob had smiled, grimly. He remembered the last time he let Jean steer. They’d careened from one side of the canal to the other, crashing the banks and landing in the brambles. He still bore the scars. A narrow boat needed a steady hand.

‘Jean!’ he shouted down the hatchway. ‘Come and look at this.’

Jean puffed up the stairs, wiping her hands dry on the blue checked teetowel tucked into her slacks. ‘What is it? Ducklings?’ she asked, brightly. Jean loved ducklings, gorgeous little bundles of tawny fluff, skedaddling across the water like wind-up bath toys.

‘That boat in the second lock today. The hire boat. I told you they let the water in too fast. Now look what they’ve done.’

Jean stared at the scrape, the last vestiges of her smile draining away from the corners of her mouth.

‘It’s not too bad,’ she said, tentatively.

‘Not too – I can’t believe you said that. Those stupid boys. And you, encouraging them. You didn’t even warn them, did you? Just let them throw the Lady Sylvia about. Like it was a lump of wood.’ Bob’s voice rose with indignation.

Jean turned away.

‘They were trying to help,’ she said, quietly. ‘They’re just kids. Having fun.’

‘Well, we don’t want their help, do we? Jean? Do we?’ Bob’s voice had been loud, bullying. Now it broke slightly, with the quaver of age.

Jean paused. She did, actually, want some help. It was hard work, especially the locks. Buying the boat had been Bob’s retirement dream, not hers. She worried about how they’d manage on their own, with her getting stiffer and more puffed out, and Bob getting fussier and more crotchety. And she did miss having Sylvia just down the road.

Jean dabbed her eyes on the teetowel and dredged up the remains of her smile. She turned back and patted his wrinkled hand. ‘Of course not. We do just fine.’

Together, they watched the pair of swans glide off down the canal, looking for another boat to petition for food. The cygnet bobbed along behind them, the soft grey of gathering twilight.

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