Sunday, 14 September 2014
The fishing table and the breezeblock hut were finally in view. Beside a fence, humming violently, the railway; the train was rushing by, late. The dirt road had finally come to an end and the two boys, the taller one called Nat and the smaller one called Jimmy, were meandering down towards the sight ahead. Jimmy was carrying a rucksack, Nat a paddle, with which he used to swat nettles and willow branches. Jimmy glanced over his shoulder, hanging tight to the rucksack, back to the last tracks of road. The great woods dispersed either side of the trail, collapsing gently into the surrounding mud. Where the trail ended so began nature: reed-sodden upturned marshes of partial landfill and earth swamped the land here on out. The mud oozed like treacle underfoot but the two boys were relentless, their boots squelching with every step. The sun, high in the sky, gleamed intermittently through gauze twigs and trees. A flutter of light burned Nat’s eyes. He squinted.
It’s so bright.
Be quiet, we’re nearly there.
Nat swatted a mosquito on his neck.
Do we have to do this today?
Yes. We’ve been planning this all week, Nat, we can’t just back out now, can we?
Nat sighed. To see his friend exasperated was the last thing he needed.
It’s just a rock with some dead trees on it, he said.
Jimmy glared at Nat as the two of them approached the hut. He squelched onwards to where the trees descended with an abrupt turn, leaving Nat to venture inside the hut. Jimmy stopped as he approached the fishing table, joining the wooden knots with his eyes, dot to dot, before looking coldly at the fish gutter and the rusty knife. He vented his frustration by kicking the chair. He took a few steps to a little clearing round the turn in the trees and there loomed the great lake. The edges were trimmed with sandy banks and muddy banks and the waters were calm, caressing the rays of the sun into a shimmering globule that shifted and floated with the gentle tide. Jimmy, all too familiar with the stunning view, searched for a branch along the shore with blind indifference, kneeling on the ground to look under thorn bushes and probing dead trees by hanging from them. One soon gave way and Jimmy landed back in the mud on his feet. Nat, back from his venture to the hut, was brandishing two wooden paddles.
Where’s the boat again?
Jimmy motioned to the bushes behind Nat, who turned around and lifted up thick leaf strewn branches to reveal the little rowing boat. Nat snatched it with both hands and pulled it along the shore to the water’s edge and then jumped inside, the waves gently lapping against the back and sides of the vessel. Jimmy too followed suit and jumped aboard before pushing away from the launch with a big heave of the branch. Once they were in deep water, Jimmy ditched the branch into the lake.
Let’s head for that bloody island, he said, dumping his rucksack between himself and Nat.
Nat relaxed and leant back upon the prow, squinting onwards at the treeline along the shore. Jimmy too sat down, watching the branch drift off. The lake was undisturbed; a mirror to a reflected world of inverted foliage and vast blue skies; and all the while the boat nonchalantly traversed the waters towards the tiny outcrop at the centre of the deep blue. Both boys took a sigh of relief - a toast to success.
Now, come on then, let’s get rowing, said Jimmy.
Nat, basking in the warmth of the sun, gave a lazy stretch before spreading a hand down beneath his seat. He blinked, puzzled. He moved the other down in a frantic search. He stopped.
What is it? asked Jimmy.
Nat’s eyes slowly widened. He lifted his head over Jimmy’s, staring fearfully at the launch.
No, whispered Jimmy, who turned to the same sight.
There, stuck in the mud upright, stood a wooden paddle. Jimmy held his face in his hands. They were stranded.
I don’t understand… I had them both! I could’ve sworn I chucked ‘em in the boat!
Jimmy threw his arms up in the air and held his head in his hands. Nat sank back, defeated, gazing back towards the shore. All the while the boat meandered upon the calm waters, drifting over the mirror world. The wind picked up here and there, forming ripples on the previously glass-like surface. The trees rustled. A few minutes of silence proceeded. There, in the centre, their goal. Jimmy leant upon his fist, staring helplessly at the island. Nat, his head held low, kept looking at his friend remorsefully.
I’m sorry, I really am, he said.
Jimmy’s gaze held firm. Nat sighed and looked back out to the foliage.
It doesn’t matter, said Jimmy, there’s nothing we can do about it now. The water’s much too deep here; we’ll just have to see where the wind takes us.
The two drifted with heads bowed and an awkward silence ensued. Above them an orange tint coloured the high cirrus clouds as the sun kissed the far treeline. A hazy late afternoon heat swept over the lake. Whilst Nat bathed silently in the sun, Jimmy reached for his rucksack. He removed a music player and flicked through it. With a muffled crackle the cheap speakers awoke and eased out acoustic blues. Jimmy placed the device down beside him and laid back and closed his eyes.
‘Where did you sleep last night...’
Nat awoke as the boat creaked slightly. He squinted at his surroundings before yawning, but his face soon turned sour - his mouth was dry and it hurt. He caught a glimpse of a bottle of water in Jimmy’s rucksack. Nat’s desire for water was intolerable. He grabbed the bottle and drank heavily, alleviating his parched throat. Two blackbirds flew overhead in a dance of twirls and dives. Holding the drink in his hand Nat gazed longingly at the birds, listening to their song, as they drifted aimlessly with the wind till they soared up the launch through the pines.
Where’s the paddle?
The music crackled its last as the battery suddenly died. Jimmy began to stir.
Jimmy, there’s a man.
A man! Look!
He turned with the wind.
HEY! HEY, MISTER!
But there was nothing to be seen, not even a paddle. Nat stood up, flailing wildly as the little boat rocked.
Where? I don’t see him.
The launch! He’s now at the launch. HEY!
Suddenly a Shadow appeared. Jimmy could see it - he or she he could not define - a black figure staring blankly over the waters beside the fishing table. HEY! HEY! They sang in chorus but the Shadow remained motionless. Jimmy stood up euphoric with hope and arm in arm with Nat waved and shouted away at the shadow. He soon knelt down and splashed the surrounding water, adding to the waters that thrashed from Nat’s efforts. An indeterminable noise crept along the wind causing Jimmy to pause, he held up his hand and Nat stopped mid yell. Another noise stammered from the launch. The Shadow was smoking a cigarette with fumes billowing from its nose. It persistently ignored their calls for help and, with one swinging flick of the cigarette into the lake, made for the trees and left the scene without a trace. Even the boys knew too that their fate was sealed with that blunt gesture. Despondent, Nat turned back - the sun was fast approaching the treeline. Jimmy’s eyes glazed over as he looked at the launch with anger and bewilderment and remained fixed on his knees. Then the sun wandered beyond the horizon and a terrible chill ensued. Blotched wisps of fog seeped around the boat as the two boys were absorbed by the evening fog. A wooden creak in the still waters was all that could be heard. Together they sat in silence, waiting for the wind.
Then Nat gestured beyond the prow. The evening fog had parted to reveal a sign - a rotten rickety one that read: DANGER. They drifted past with faces of bewilderment. The hull scraped along a rock with a simmering growl. A fly buzzed about invisible. Nat was swatting the air, fixated on the clearing fog. The fly landed on the prow, he approached with caution and with a slam it was gone and the fog burst open to reveal the island. Dead trees hung low over the water’s edge upon a matrix of roots plugged with plastics bags and mud. The odd tin can bobbed here and there against loose turf. Piles and piles of rubbish, creeping with bin bags and metal shards. Like looking through the window of a train the boys peered into an exhibit of hanging strands of twigs and thorns to glimpse at the world they had desired from the launch, powerless to grasp their frivolous goal. But it was lifeless, a rocky outcrop and no more. The fog soon presided over the island just as easily as it had opened it up to them, and the two boys drifted onwards upon the mirrored lake.
'Where did you sleep last night...'
The vessel jolted and startled Jimmy upright. He turned. He turned again, starboard, then port side. The acoustic blues were playing again. He had a cold sweat and his heart beat fast. He looked up; the sun shone a tinge of purple high amongst the cirrus clouds and seared his fresh eyes. Nat was asleep on the prow. The wind picked up and lifted Jimmy’s hair, the water chopping against the side of the little boat. Suddenly, a knock. Jimmy sat still, Nat awoke, each holding the other’s gaze. The knock again. They leapt to the side and there it was: a wooden paddle. Jimmy stretched out an arm, effortlessly harnessing the wooden saviour, and gawped at it. He looked at Nat who took the paddle himself, lifting it gently to his chest before laying it out in his hands in awe. They looked around for any sign, a single speck of activity, and there was none. The lake was empty, the banks were empty. The paddle had appeared as it was, floating, born upon them by the wind.
Back at the breezeblock hut and the fishing table the train rushed back home, zooming past the wired fence where the sun glistened through the trees with purple rays. And there, at the foot of the wake left by the little rowing boat, floated the butt of a cigarette.