'She lay upstream of the ClunyBellenow, a diving board for generations of village children,
and with moorhens nesting in her broken wheels ...'
The Cuckoos of Batch Magna
(In which the 'water gypsies', as Mr Pugh, shopkeeper and the Nonconformist conscience of Batch Magna, slightingly calls them, receive from the new squire notices to quit their home, the river.)
Phineas walked along Upper Ham, and through the door of what was once the ticket office of the Cluny Steamboat Company to reach the Castle, and down onto the landing stage, all now part of the boat's moorings.
Both the building and landing stage looked much as they did in the photographs on a wall in the lounge bar of the Steamer Inn. There was a wooden triangular pediment still under the eaves, like that of an old branch line station, hanging baskets of geraniums, hollyhocks and foxgloves in the beds, and begonias blooming in the fire buckets. And a Victorian lamp-post that had once flared in the river mists, a yellow rambler climbing still up one side of the office door, and crimson roses under the windows, the heated air velvet with their scent.
Phineas found the Commander standing at the starboard rail of the boat, bracing himself on his good leg, a pair of marine binoculars trained steadily on the wooded hills on the other side of the valley, as if watching for the smoke of the enemy.
He lowered the glasses when Phineas came up the gangway, and wiped at the sweat on his brow with the back of his hand.
“A buzzard,” he said. “Hear it whistling? There’s a nest up there somewhere. I love to see them soar, riding the sky, so effortlessly. And so free. I shall reserve a second life, after first returning as an otter, and come back as a buzzard.”
He glanced at the letter Phineas was holding, the white envelope red-franked with the name of a firm of Kingham solicitors. “Ah, I see you received the same signal, my boy.”
“So it’s not just me?” Phineas said, stuffing the letter into his shirt pocket.
The Commander smiled. “No, old chap, it’s not just you. Ours arrived in the same post. As did one for the Owens. And presumably Jasmine’s been paid off as well.”
“A hell of a blow!” Phineas said, and looked at the Commander as if waiting to be told otherwise.
The Commander nodded solemnly. “As you say.”
“And completely out of the blue.”
“Oh, completely,” the Commander agreed.
“Jasmine’s not there, by the way. Or at any rate her car isn’t. I was going to give her a shout.”
The Commander motioned towards the living quarters. “The First Lieutenant,” he said, meaning his wife, “is in there now, ringing both you and Jasmine. Annie’s with her.” When storm threatened, those on the river tended to turn for the lee of the Castle.
“And you’ve been given the same notice on your moorings?” Phineas asked.
The Commander nodded. “Three months.” He and his wife, Priny, were the only ones to own their boat, buying it out of what was left of a venture farming edible snails in Cornwall, something else which had ended in a lively exchange of letters with the bank. “They don’t say what they’ll do if we haven’t moved by then. Sink us, I suppose.”
“Well, at least he’s given us good notice. Two months more than he was legally obliged to. Which is decent of him.” Phineas thought again. “Or is it?” he asked himself suspiciously, seeing that it involved business and lawyers.
He decided it wasn’t. “He’s probably got his own timetable. Besides,” he added indignantly, “the estate owes the Owens a bit more than that. A damn sight more than that!”
“Oh, I quite agree. I quite agree,” the Commander said, peering at his wrist watch.
“And what about you, James, you and Priny? What will you do?”
“Emm? Oh, well, we’ll have to sell her back to the estate – always providing of course that they want her back. Or we could arrange a tow – if, that is, we can find somewhere to tow her to. And if, that is, we had something to steer her with. The old duck certainly couldn’t go anywhere without a push of some kind.” He looked at Phineas, as if Phineas had suggested she might. “There’s not enough of her plumbing left for anything else.” The Castle was also the only one of the paddlers to still have the remains of an engine.
“Although I’d dearly love to be able to do that for her. To take her out as she arrived …. To put a fire in her again … smoke and steam in the air… her wheels churning the water white round Snails Eye .…”
The Commander’s good eye was distant and full of it.
Then he remembered Phineas. “And what about you, Phineas? What will you do, my boy? What areyour plans? Will you stay here? Move on? Have you given it any thought at all yet?” he demanded anxiously, making up for it with a flurry of concern for his friend.
“No – I don’t know, James. I don’t think I’ll stay. Not now. I mean, it won’t be the same, will it?”
“No, old man, it won’t be the same. Not the same thing at all.”
“And what about Annie and Owain? And after all this time.”
“It’s an outrage. No other word for it.”
“And Jasmine and her family,” Phineas went on. “Where will Jasmine go, with … with all those children of hers?” he said vaguely, never sure, like most people, like Jasmine herself seemed not to be sometimes, quite how many that meant.
“As you say. As you so rightly say, my dear chap. Where will they go? Where will they go? It’s appalling, appalling.”
“And what’s he going to do with the paddlers, that’s what I’d like to know? The notice doesn’t tell us much, does it. Just that he wants vacant possession. So what is he going to do with them?”
“What indeed. What indeed, my boy. That’s the question,” the Commander said, frowning about him. “That is the question …”
He found his stick on the deck table, a heavy blackthorn, cut and shaped for him by Owain Owen, the handle, with a shine stroked into it from use, carved into a badger’s head. He then fished about in his trouser pockets, searching for his fob, before remembering that he was using his wrist watch this morning. Life had suddenly become rather hectic.
“What indeed. What indeed, my dear fellow,” the Commander muttered, studying the watch face.
“That’s it!” he said then. “Wardroom’s open.”
He was wearing a pair of creased white ducks, with a Royal Yacht Squadron necktie for a belt, and what was left of his hair sticking out in the heat in damp, greying, tufts. He had his head to one side slightly, favouring his good eye. Phineas peered at the other one.
The Commander’s leg had been shattered when, as a wartime naval pilot on the deck of his carrier, a Swordfish aircraft, coming in after him, and with the pilot wounded, had landed nose down, shredding the air with splinters from the wooden propellers. When the same accident later caused him to have an eye removed, the Commander commissioned a miniaturist to paint a collection of plain glass ones, depicting naval battles and landscapes that spoke of England, and one flying the Union Jack when a bit of swank, a bit of defiance, in the face of whatever was called for.
“The Stubbs,” the Commander told him. “Huntsman and Horse.”
“Ah,” Phineas said.
Phineas followed his friend up the steps to the wardroom, a room stuffed with books and bottles, and copies of ancient charts, like storybook charts, marked with brimming treasure chests and spouting whales, and warnings of monsters, and cherubs with winds on their breath. Here, the Commander pursued his theories of such things as time, and of moons that had shone down on this planet before, and monsters that still lived here, and the location of lost Atlantis.
Carrying their drinks, they came out into the dazzle of sunlight and white-painted upperworks as Priny and Annie Owen left the sitting room opposite.
“Ah, there you are, darling,” Priny said when she saw Phineas. “Jasmine’s not here,” she added to her husband. “She’s gone to Shrewsbury for the day, the babysitter tells me.” She smiled at Phineas. “What is it about your legs, Phineas, that reminds me I was once a mother?”
Phineas frowned down at his legs, in a pair of white shorts. Annie laughed. “It’s because they need fattening, like the rest of him.”
“I was hoping,” Phineas said, “they’d look less sort of obvious, once they got a bit brown again.”
“Leave the man’s legs alone. He’s got a perfectly good pair,” the Commander said. “The sort of knees that helped carve out an empire. His shorts could do with a press, and his hair’s too long, I grant you. And he needs to straighten up a bit, stop slopping about the place. But his legs will do.”
“At least he’s got the sense to wear a hat in this heat,” Priny told him. “Put yours on, James, please. You’ll boil your head.”
The Commander had caught the sun on a trip yesterday in their mahogany dinghy, pulling strongly upriver, with a lunch hamper in the stern. His leg, which rarely failed to let him know it was there when on land, forgotten.
“I can’t, Number One, you’ve hidden it. She’s always hiding things,” he told Phineas. “Something to do with age, I expect.”
“Where’s Owain?” Phineas asked, while Priny located the ancient red-and-white striped rowing cap her husband had left on a deckchair.
“Helping out on a pigeon shoot over at Boden,” Annie said. She smiled sympathetically at him. “You’ve got notice as well, then, Phineas?”
Phineas nodded. “Yes. He hasn’t wasted much time, has he? And to not say anything to you when he was here!” He shook his head. “Incredible.”
“Oh, I’m sure he didn’t know it at the time, Phineas. He couldn’t have.” Annie looked appalled at the thought.
“He’s a businessman, Annie. A money man. To them, people go in one drawer, profit in another. And they never confuse the two.”
Annie had met the American at the Hall when he was over briefly to inspect his inheritance, and had liked him, as he had seemed to like her. She hoped he hadn’t known that one of the houseboats was hers, that with a few impersonal words that weren’t even his own, he was pulling over twenty years of family memories up by the roots.
“And Owain doesn’t know about it yet?” Phineas said.
She shook her head. “No. No, none of them do. Not yet.”
He saw she had been crying, the kohl she wore on her eyes smudged, and never very good at that sort of thing, made an awkward job of hugging her.
“Drinks!” Priny said brightly, looking at their glasses. “What a good idea.”
“Where’s Pink Gin?” Phineas asked when they were seated. Pink Gin was the Cunninghams’ aged mongrel, a dog who, when the drinks came out, usually liked a drop of something in her bowl. “Too hot for her, darling,” Priny told him. “She’s getting rather ancient now, I’m afraid.”
“She’s inside,” the Commander said. “Dreaming of past glories. Ratting and rabbiting in her sleep.”
They were sitting at the round white plastic deck table, under a large, Patio Living pink-and-white striped parasol, an oasis of shade and the chime of iced drinks.
Priny lifted her glass. “To survival.”
Like her husband she was good at that. Priny couldn’t be kept down for long, no matter what the weather. Even Hitler, with his promise to bomb Malta to dust, couldn’t do that when she nursed there during the worst of it. Not even the matron of her hospital could do that.
She was wearing a wide-brimmed sugar-pink straw hat, and what she called her mad old bag spectacles, emerald green, with two electric-blue butterflies perched on the frames, crimson lipstick to match her nail extensions, a poppy print shirt and floral Capri pants. A party of one in full swing, a Plymouth gin in one hand, a cigarette in an amber holder in the other.
“I’m just surprised the General didn’t do anything about all this in his will, you know?” Annie, who’d been thinking about it, said. “I mean, it’s not just us, is it. It’s the paddlers, and all that. Part of the history of the place, the old CSC. Our old tub was named after his mother.” She shook her head. “Just didn’t think, I suppose. That would be it. Poor old love.”
“It’s this place. We are children here!” Phineas cried suddenly. “Strolling carelessly along, smelling the flowers and admiring the view. With no thought of what might be on its way round the next bend.”
He shook his head incredulously at the sheer folly of their ways. “Well now it’s here,” he said, looking at them accusingly. “Now it has found us.”
Phineas’s newfound maturity, worn over the past few days with a solemn, aloof sort of air, like that of a visitor from an enclosed order to the frivolous world he’d left behind, was now less in evidence. His expression, as he gazed hotly out across the water, more that of an aggrieved teenager who had done what he’d been told to do, had taken a more mature, a more serious, responsible view of things, and had ended up getting evicted.
“Bound to happen sooner or later, I suppose,” the Commander said equably, tamping his pipe down. “It’s the times, my boy, the times. O tempora o mores. The new order. It goes under different names but always calls itself progress, and we are in its way. And the last sad squires ride slowly towards the sea, and the new lords take the land. Lords who look at our labour and laughter as a tired man looks at flies. With bright dead alien eyes. Something like that.”
He put his pipe in his mouth, and then took it out again. “Come to think of it, I had a letter from one of them only the other day.”
Priny laughed, the sound pure bottled nightclub. “James thinks the bank manager’s been taken over by an alien.”
“It’s the only possible explanation,” her husband said.
“That’s what happens, darling, when you leave your hat off in the sun.”
The Commander ignored her, and lifted his glass. “Here’s to the General,” he said, and winked mysteriously at Phineas.
Annie laughed then, suddenly, at her own thoughts, and wiped at her nose with a hand. “He’ll go mad, Owain, when he hears. Go mad, he will. Probably take an axe to the old boat, the work he’s put in on her. He only got round to finishing the paint job a couple of months back, her letters and scrollwork and all. Hopping, he’ll be. Bloody well hopping.”
“Perhaps that’s what we should do to all of them,” the Commander said. “Rather than simply hand them over. Hazard them ourselves. Sink them. Blow them up. Send them to join their sister ship, the Sabrina. Better that than into the hands of the enemy, and God knows what indignities. It could be said we owe them that. Both the little ships and the General.”
The PS Sabrina, the old Roman name for the River Severn, and the vessel that had made the full complement of the CSC, had blown a boiler two years into service, when her crew, in an attempt to beat a previous time from Water Lacy, tried to shovel more speed out of her than her maximum eight knots safely allowed. She lay upstream of the Cluny Belle now, a diving board for generations of village children, and with moorhens nesting in her broken wheels.
“What, a few limpet mines on their hulls, you mean, James?” Phineas asked with interest, remembering a film he’d seen recently on television.
The Commander shook his head. “No. No need for that, old man. A few sticks of something in the bilges should do it. Linked to a central detonator.”
“A plunger. Yes, yes, I know,” Phineas said, nodding at it.
The Commander leaned towards him. “And we’re far enough away from the village not to cause civilian casualties or to take the Masters’ Cottages or the pub up with them. The General wouldn’t want any of that. No, it would just be our party. Us and a plunger. Bang!” he said again, the huntsman’s pink in the Stubbs like blood in his eye, the good one with enough blue life in it for two eyes, twinkling away, signalling devilment like a ship’s lamp.
“At night, of course?” Phineas said. These things were always done at night.
“Well, of course at night, old chap. Not a lot of point in fireworks during the day now, is there.”
The Commander’s head reared up at a sudden thought. “Of course! The very thing. The very time. On the day of the Regatta. A grand finale to the fireworks. It could scarcely be more appropriate. The little ships started the whole thing, let them finish it. Let them have the last, loud word. Eh? Bang …!”
“I think,” Priny put in, “that perhaps we should try something a little less explosive first, darling.” She could never be entirely sure with either of them. There was a part of her husband, she always felt, that had yet to return from the war. And Phineas, despite being in his middle thirties, had still to grow up. “And do bear in mind, James,” she told him, just in case, “if you are inclined to get any silly ideas, that the Castle is all we have in the bank at present.”
The Commander sighed heavily. “Yes, I know, Number One, I know. I’m sorry, Phineas, old man. It’s age. It makes misers of us,” he said dolefully. “Counting out our lives in small change from a thinning purse.”
Priny ignored it. “We’ll meet tonight. In the pub for the happy hour, and see what we can come up with. Jasmine should be back by then. I’ll pop round and leave a note for her, in case we miss her, and she throws a drama.”
Annie finished her wine. “And I’ll get over to the Hall now, see what else I can find out.”
“What shall I do?” Phineas wanted to know.
“I’ve got you down for keeping an old party company over another glass in the wardroom,” the Commander told him, getting up stiffly with the aid of his stick.
“It’s not over yet, Phineas my boy. Not over yet, my dear fellow,” he said then, quietly, confidingly. “Did I tell you that a few days back I saw an otter? No, no, not a mink,” he insisted, as if Phineas was about to suggest it might be. “A mink is much smaller and a darker brown. No, it was an otter. On Snails Eye. Disporting itself on a bank there. Sliding down a mud run and splashing away without a care in the world. A lord of time, with a fine set of whiskers.”
The Commander stopped and looked at him.
“Time for animals like the otter, you see, Phineas, is different from, for example, time for a farm animal. On the whole, time for farm animals stands still, scarcely moves from where they’re grazing. If we were able to represent it on a clock face, you would see that in the evening, when it’s time to sleep, the minute hand had barely moved from where it was in the morning, when it was time to start eating. Which of course is how it should be.”
The Commander started and stopped again.
“Time for wild animals, on the other hand, you see, my boy, is almost constantly on the go. Here and there, this way and that. It leads them by the nose, as well as the belly. And when they’re not questing or eating, or engaged in sundry other matters, then they’re squabbling. And when they’re doing none of those things, they are playing. And then they are lordly. Lordly. Time for us, Phineas, we humans, is a poor shackled thing in comparison. We are tied to it from birth, and burdened with its future as well as its past. The baggage of our lives, and our fears of what might be. And the usual spree of youth aside, we spend it with one eye on the clock. Unlike animals such as the otter, who chuck it about as if there were no tomorrow. Which of course, for them, there isn’t. They live only in the present. They cannot know time and so are free of it. And lords of it. With fields of time, seas and rivers of time, and all the skies to play in.”
The Commander shook his head with sudden impatience. “Anyway, anyway,” he said, moving again, and as if Phineas had diverted him. “The point is – the point is, my dear Phineas, that I have never, in all my ten years on this river, seen an otter here before. Never.”
He stopped again, and sighted Phineas with his good eye. “You do realise what this means, don’t you? It means, it means, old chap,” he went on patiently, when Phineas obviously had no idea, “that the General is once more among us. And why? That’s the question, Phineas. That is the question, my dear old fellow. Why? Why now of all times?” the Commander asked, and winked.