"But we were taking turns, Dad, and it was my turn." I knew he would listen to that. He was always fair, my Dad, so long as I didn't give him cheek. This wasn't the time for cheek, not with all the other trouble I seemed to be in. But I couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
"Did you think about how worried Mr Jones would be?" He never took his eyes off his driving. The wipers weren't keeping up with the deluge, and gusts of wind rocked the car. He peered out into the rain, nothing visible in the headlights but the dazzle of the downpour. Driving slowly, straining to see through sheets of water, looking for the little reflectors that marked the edge of the winding road, below which the cliffs dropped away sheer into the water of the harbour.
Well, I hadn't given Mr Jones a second thought, of course not. If I had, if I'd thought about that at all, I probably wouldn't have done it. No, it would have put me right off it in the first place.
Dad kept watching the road, but I felt he was staring straight at me. In the dash lights he looked like he couldn't make up his mind when we got home was he going to shake me, take off his belt to me, give me a good telling off, or ground me. Or should he just try to explain to me why I was in trouble? Why it had been very wrong for me to paddle the canoe across to The Island.
It had been Lizzie's idea to go canoing. Just after lunch she said, "Let's go down to the pier and take the canoe out." The canoe, her canoe, that was a real joke. A few strips of lath with canvas stretched over, and a coat of paint for water-proofing. Only room for one - you could get three into mine. Her big brother had made hers some time ago, for himself, but he had outgrown it. A sailor friend of Dad's had helped me make mine, and it had real curved bow and stern, and much newer canvas.
But today we were down at mudflats up the head of the harbour, and my canoe was miles away, chained up on the bank of the creek where it ran behind our house up at the city. So we had to use hers. And we had to take turns. In mine we could have gone together. Maybe that would have been better. Or maybe worse.
"How could you think of taking that pointed cockle shell across five miles of open water, at your age?" Oh no - I couldn't deal with this one. I am going to be caught again. If I say that I'm old enough to do it safely I'm going to be 'old enough to know better', but if I go the other way, then it's going to be 'and you know you're too young to do it safely'. I hate it when they do that. Get him onto something else.
"But it was a lovely calm day, Dad. Not a breath of wind." That much was true. It had been one of those rare days with the sky blue, and the water still, and nothing moving on the grassy slopes of the hills that ran down from all directions into the huge empty expanse of the harbour. The air had been so clear that it was easy to make out the few houses across the harbour. From the canoe The Island seemed large, and close.
Lizzie had the first turn. It was her canoe so I couldn't win that one. We were going to have ten minutes each. We left the watch on the pier so it wouldn't get wet if we went over. We did, sometimes, but it was easy to get back in and splash enough water out so you could paddle back to the beach. Then you roll the canoe over, and upside down you pull it right out of the water and turn it right way up. Then back in the water, climb in, and off you paddle.
The one on the pier called out to the other when the ten minutes was up. I called out to Lizzie, and she came back in, hot and red from the sun and the paddling. I had the next turn. The pier was in a little bay, a sort of bite out of the harbour proper. I tried to get across the bay and back in my turn, but Lizzie called out before I had got across. I turned right round and went back to her. She was really angry.
"You had twenty minutes."
"Well, it wasn't my fault. I came straight away when you yelled. If you wanted me to turn back sooner you should have yelled in time. I wasn't the one with the watch. Don't blame me."
"OK, but I want a twenty-minute turn now, to make up."
I couldn't win this one, either. So we ended up having twenty-minute turns. Then twenty-five. That was my fault, too. I reckon she should have called me sooner, but she reckoned that I should have known by then that if I couldn't get across the bay in ten minutes, when she called me the last time, that I would never get there and back in twenty.
That's the story of my life. Everyone is always telling me 'you should have known' as if that's the answer to everything. Grown-ups are bad enough, but girls are worse. If you don't give in to them they won't play with you. There are five of us children in the village, but Lizzie is the only one about my age. And if it weren't for her I wouldn't have a real lot to do. All my stuff is up in the city at our year-round house, even my bike. And my brother is only three. You can't play with him. Well, you can, but it's more fun for him than it is for you. He's cute but he gets boring pretty quickly. He's not really up to much, yet.
Lizzie's family lives out here in their year-round house just up from the pier. She's got her canoe here all the time. She's got plenty she can do in the holidays. Her brother is much more interesting than mine. He's four years older than her and he's a prefect at school and I have to clean his shoes, and if he catches me out at anything he can cane me. He did, once. So I didn't want to go there. Prefects are great things to keep well away from. He and Lizzie do some things together in the holidays. Why she'd have anything to do with a prefect, I don't know.
Her Mum's nice. She smiles a lot. She does water-colour painting and bakes lovely scones we have with jam and cream. And her Dad's at home most of the time, and plays chess with her and teaches her the piano. He's retired. Sort of. I think he writes history books. When I heard that I thought I wouldn't want to meet him. I hate our history master at school, Dusty Anderson, and he hates me. And I hate history and I think he must too. If he likes it he certainly doesn't make it sound that way. So I put off meeting Mr Jones as long as I could. But when I finally met him he wasn't like that at all. He looked pretty gruff, bushy eyebrows and never a smile. But he had a warm sort of voice, not like old Dusty's wheeze.
The first time I met Lizzie's Dad I thought he pulled my leg about playing with Lizzie, and then about going to an all-boys school, and maybe about some other things. But when I thought about it maybe he wasn't really, and then later I thought about it some more and maybe he really had been. When I got to know him a bit better you could watch his eyes and when he said those things they would get a sort of crinkle in them, and I guess that was about as close as he ever got to a smile, so he really was pulling your leg and that's how you could tell.
I liked him, but I wouldn't want to swap Dads. I know where I am with mine. He doesn't smile much either, maybe Dads never do. But I do know where I am with him. Sometimes he plays chess with me and he shows me how to use his tools. I'm not allowed to until I know how properly. And I know how much cheek I can get away with. But I couldn't tell with Mr Jones, though he was so like Dad in some ways. And he must be so old. Retired.
Lizzie's brother was a big surprise. In his home clothes he was different. You couldn't see him caning anyone. All smiles and rolling on the ground with their dog and wrestling with Lizzie and me both at once. He is big. All the older ones are. I can't wait to be older and big. He plays tennis in the school team and he plays against Lizzie and me at the same time on the village court across the road from their house, and he always wins.
So if Lizzie and I don't play together she's OK. But when we're out here, if I don't play with Lizzie, all I've got is helping Mum do the holiday house garden and look after my little brother. And I don't want to do either one. Well maybe a bit, but not the whole holidays.
I don't know why they got the holiday house. It's just work. Make up food packs and fill the car and trailer with boxes of things, almost two days by the time you get there, and then when you get there, unpack and put away. And clean out. Vacuum and dust and wipe down everything. Another day. And coming home it's the same. Why clean it all out before you leave? You only have to clean it all out again for nothing next time you come.
Home's much better. There's a lovely flat park just across the road from the house where I can fly my model planes and ride my bike. All my friends are easy to bike to. My canoe is behind the house on the bank of the little stream. There's the workshop. And all my books and my model engineering set.
I reckon the holiday house is worse for Dad. He's always having to build another something-or-other for it. A wardrobe, or another room and some bunks so the girl cousins can stay with us, or put a kerosene shower in the washhouse. Or pour a concrete area outside the front door so Mum can sit there and have tea outside looking down the hill and down the length of the harbour. One time, Dad set up his easel there and painted that view. Mostly though, once he's got us settled in he goes back and stays alone in town when we go to the harbour, and when he does come he's always working at it. I think it was Mum who had wanted the holiday house. I wish she hadn't.
Except for Lizzie. If we weren't here in the holidays I wouldn't be able to play with Lizzie, and go to her house. Now I know them better I don't know why I used to try and stay away, and I like to be there some of the time when the holidays come. Most of the time, really. And Lizzie is fun. She's more like a boy than a girl. And she's got a dog.
I had a dog, once. It was just a pup and I had to feed it porridge until it was old enough for meat. But before then, when we went away for a couple of days, the people who were supposed to look after it left the door open and it went on the road and got killed. They never got me another one. I didn't cry but I felt like it.
I cried when my baby rabbit died, but I was only young, then, seven. They made a little hutch for it, with wooden bars across the front, and the first night, trying to get out, it got its little head stuck between the bars and it was like that, and cold, when I went to feed it the next morning. They said it was too wild. It had been found all alone, out in the country after a rabbit shoot. It wasn't a tame one. But I reckon closer bars would have been better and I would have got it tame, feeding it and stroking it. Really. It sort of nestled down in your sleeve when you stroked it. But it needed closer bars till it was tamer. Or bigger. I cried that time.
But now I would prefer a dog. You can't take a rabbit to run with you when you go down to the harbour in the holidays. Lizzie's dog came almost everywhere with us in the holidays. When we did turns in the canoe and it wasn't your turn, then it was the dog's turn with you, and he'd rush off along the pier, across the road into the bush, barking the whole time. When the barking stopped you knew he had his mouth full with something he'd found and a few moments later he'd be bounding back to you, out on the end of the pier, shaking a stick at you to be thrown into the water for him. Most times it was a stick, anyway.
One time he came back with a big piece of rotten sacking, dragging it along the pier. He kept treading on it as he ran, and nearly falling over, and he'd growl and turn back to attack and look puzzled and I reckon he never knew he was doing it to himself. He's like that with farts, too. Sometimes he makes a really disgusting pong, and with the sound of it he jumps right around growling, and snaps his jaws in the air where his tail had been, and then gets a puzzled 'who did that to me?' sort of look. Stupid, I suppose, but I still reckon he's pretty smart, really, for a dog.
This afternoon we had been taking turns throwing sticks for him, as usual, and I had just climbed down the pier ladder to start my next turn in the canoe. There wasn't much water left in the bay. Mr Jones says we get big tides here. The day he told us that we went to measure it. At high tide we marked it on the pier ladder and when we went back at low tide I climbed down until my feet were at the water, then Lizzie stood on the ladder just above me and her head was just about up to the high water mark we had made.
The pier must be half a mile long. At least. There's good water right up to the village at high tide, but when it goes out the whole bay is just mud. The pier goes over the mud like a bridge, out to where the deeper water starts, otherwise you couldn't get The Launch in and our side of the harbour would be completely cut off. The pier gets used for the store, and doctor, sometimes the police, as well as the people coming and going, but you can't fish off it. You have to net for mud fish. They won't take a hook.
We don't come on The Launch. Dad says he won't load the trailer for the drive, then unload the whole lot into The Launch at one end, and then out of The Launch into the grocer's van at the other, then finally out of that and into our holiday house, and all over again when we go home. He'd rather drive an extra two hours, on the back road over the mountain and down into the bay, than do that those extra times. He really hates the holiday house, I reckon. But I bet he'll never tell Mum that. You have to be wary of Dad, but Mum's the one you really have to watch out for. Dad knows it too. When he's mad at me he always brings her into it for good measure, even if she's nowhere about.
"And did you give the slightest thought to how worried your Poor Mother would be?" - right on time. And as usual it's 'your Poor Mother'. And as usual he says it like Mr Jones talks when his eyes are crinkled up and I realise that maybe Dad's more on my side than hers. He often disagrees with Mum, but she's the one who gets her way. I'd be in deep trouble if I said so, though. I did, sort of, once, and Mum had to pull him off me but she hadn't heard what I had said and he wouldn't tell her. I found out, that day, how much cheek was too much, for sure. So I sit here as quiet and still as I can. Anything would be wrong, just now.
The car goes round another headland, the lights sweeping out over the edge, through the driven rain, and Dad must have been reminded by that - "We had the Police Launch out, with the Searchlight On, round All the Bays, Looking. And they Couldn't Find Anything" - why do grown ups always Talk In Capitals when they're mad at you? And anyhow, of course they Couldn't Find Anything, I'm here, aren't I? Not out there. I couldn't have been a washed up body for them to find. If I had been, he couldn't be talking to me now. Grown ups can be so stupid sometimes. One minute you think they know everything - they're always so sure they're right and you're wrong - and the next minute they seem so stupid. Sometimes. Mainly when they get mad at you, I suppose.
He's sure enough mad at me now. I still can't work out why. Lizzie knew where I had been going. And it was perfectly safe. What was all the fuss about?
"I'm going across to The Island." I yelled to her, when I saw there was no water left in the bay, only mud. "You can have two turns to make up." I added, paddling backward out into the harbour proper, so I could face her and be sure my yells were understood.
"You're not allowed."
"I'm going to tell Dad."
I didn't for a moment believe Mr Jones would buy into a fight about whether or not I took a double turn and then gave Lizzie a double turn. But to be sure, "OK, you can have three of my turns." There, that should do it.
She yells something back at me, but I've been making good time and I'm quite a way out now. So I can't make out her words any more over the regular shwoosh of the paddle and the sound of tiny wavelets pattering against the canvas, as I keep pushing, pushing, backwards out towards The Island.
I watch her standing at the end of the pier, too small now to make out her face. Suddenly she turns and starts the long run along the heavy timber planking, high above the mud, back to the shore and the house, the dog with her.
Fair enough, I think, why hang around out there waiting all that time? When I get back I can go up to the house and tell her it's her long turn. And I turn and face the front, sure that The Island would grow larger by the minute as I pull the paddle left and right, left and right, left and right, hearing its sound, and the pattering of the wavelets, and enjoying how still and warm and quiet it is, except for the little sounds of my movement and the calls of a few gulls away off fighting over some piece of refuse or another.
Actually, The Island isn't getting that much bigger. Or not as fast as I thought it might. I turn round and start paddling backwards again. That seems faster and easier. I can't be tiring, though. The Island is quite close to the pier.
Dad says nowhere in the harbour is more than a mile from shore. I reckon The Island must be about two miles away, then. That shouldn't take me long. I must be going three miles an hour - that's about walking speed. I'm sure I'm going that fast. We've being doing mental arithmetic at school so I can work it out. Look at the paddle marks in the water. Maybe three feet every 'left-right'. Two miles equals three thousand four hundred yards, near enough.
One-thousand, two-thousand, three-thousand, four-thousand.... Good, every left-right takes about a second. Sixty times sixty is three thousand six hundred. That's one hour to get there and one to get back. It was half-past-one when I last looked at the watch so I should be back by half-past-three.
We have tea at six and Mum's the time keeper. There's hell to pay if you're late. But I'll have hours to spare, though I'll owe Lizzie four turns, not three. She can have most of them later this afternoon, and maybe one or two tomorrow morning. She'll understand. I already explained to her, after all. And she went off then, so you knew she'd agreed. OK.
Look at the sun. See how high it is above the hills. When it's half that high I have to turn back anyhow, no matter how far I've got. But for now, just shwoosh-shwoosh, shwoosh-shwoosh. Over and over. A lovely soothing sound. You get used to the paddling. After a while it almost feel like it's someone else doing the paddling, and you're along for the ride, watching the paddling, looking around at the water, and the sky, and the birds, and the grassy hillsides from the rocky peaks down to the trees around the shore line.
Gee, but it's hot. The sun is warm, and the reflection off the water adds to it. And there must be a slight breeze now, blowing towards The Island, because I don't have the nice cooling I was getting before from my movement through the still air.
I'll have a head wind going home. I'll have to turn back earlier to allow. Check the sun. Still very high. Have a rest; look around. Right out in the middle now. Nowhere is close. Everywhere is far away. Everybody, too. Nobody to yell at me and ask me "Why did you do this?" and "What on earth made you do that?" Even Lizzie. She doesn't yell at me, but she does sometimes makes me feel stupid, just the same. None of that here. Lovely and quiet.
I pick up the paddle and push on, changing over now and then from paddling facing forward to paddling facing back. It doesn't get me tired like doing it all the same way. And it means I'm keeping a lookout, without even having to remember to do it. Sailor's Rules. That's what Dad's friend said they were, when I was watching him making the canoe. He made me learn them, too. He said he would tell Dad not to let me out in it if I didn't learn them.
One of the rules is 'a Good Sailor Keeps a Good Lookout all around, often'. So you don't have collisions. Another is 'a Good Sailor Always Wears a Life Jacket'. I don't believe that one any more, because The Launch Driver doesn't wear one. And The Launch Driver has his 'Marine Ticket'. He told me that was why I wasn't allowed to drive The Launch, one time when I asked him for a go. "You've got to have your Marine Ticket to drive a passenger launch." he had explained. When I asked him what a Marine Ticket was he laughed, and then he said it shows you've done your exams to be a sailor. Then he let me have a go, anyhow, once we were well away from everything, he had said. But it wasn't any fun at all. Not like I'd thought. You just hold the wheel still and keep going straight. On and on, just sitting there holding the wheel straight. I saw how he kept glancing around all the time, sometimes turning right round and looking behind The Launch, too. I knew what he was doing. Keeping a Lookout. He knew that rule. Even if he doesn't wear his life jacket.
Well, I'm Wearing my Life Jacket, and it's so hot I wish I didn't, but I promised. And I'm Keeping a Lookout, not that there's anything to see on the water, let alone have a collision with. I had promised that, too.
And I keep on shwoosh-shwoosh, shwoosh-shwoosh..., one-thousand, two-thousand.... This is fun. I wish it could go on for ever. It's an adventure. Well, maybe not a real adventure. There's nothing happening, and no danger, but it's off away by yourself, pitted against the elements (that's a joke, today), so maybe it might just count as a small adventure. Well, a bit of a one, anyway.
After a few more turns, forwards and then backwards, The Island seems to be a bit larger, a bit closer. I look back to the jetty, squinting against the sun and its reflection in the water. I can hardly make it out at all. Must be the curvature of the earth. Stinks Graham, our science teacher, says that two people at sea level can't see each other as they move apart because they disappear over the curvature of the earth. I don't know how to work out how far that is. He says the sums are too hard for us now. "Time enough for that in a couple of years." he says.
But I can make out the trees on The Island now. Each one. I look back at the village. I can hardly see the big windbreak except as a dark line on the hillside. I can't make out any single trees, and there are lots of them around.
So I must be well past half way. If I had to swim for it, I'd go for The Island, now, and not try and head back.
That's what Dad had said to Mum. "If we get that house, he's not to go Out On The Water, except in The Launch, of course, until he can Swim Properly." We were having dinner, and that's when they always talked about things that affected us all. Well, the things they wanted me to hear, anyhow. My brother was always there too, but he was too small to understand what it was all about. And the way Dad said it - he was talking to Mum but he was really aiming the message at me. Why is it that they talk to each other that way, and act as if I'm not there at all?
"I can swim properly, Dad. I can." Well, that was only partly true. I could back-stroke a bit, and dog-paddle, and go like a fish under water, but I couldn't keep my face down in the water and then turn my head sideways to breathe. So two lengths of the school pool was about my limit.
"No, son. You're swimming much better now than last year, but it's two miles across that harbour, and if you were in trouble in the middle of the water, and had to swim for it, you could have to keep it up for a mile. Maybe more. It mightn't be so easy, once you're down in the water, to pick which is the closest way to go. I know you're good, but you'll have to be just a bit better yet. You'll have to be able to swim to shore from anywhere in the harbour."
So I've been keeping an eye out for which side I was closer to. And you know, once you're way out here, it's not so easy to pick.
I check the sun. Looks a bit above halfway down from where I started. It seems I'm so near The Island but I must have been going more slowly than I thought. By now I had reckoned I would have been there and most of the way back. Anyhow, I don't know what time the sun sets. And it would be different from here, because of the height of the hills.
I try to get a line on some things on shore so I can show Lizzie on the big map where I got to. But they are all too small and far away and it's hard to make out the details enough for that to work. But I keep looking for a while, anyhow, feeling how nice it is to have done it. I'm feeling so happy that for a while I don't notice the coldness around my shins, where I'm kneeling on the bottom boards.
But soon I do notice, and I look down to see a couple of inches of water have seeped in. Well. that's to be expected in an hour or so of paddling. The paint, over the canvas, gets little cracks in when it hardens and the canvas is moved around a little bit by the slap of water as you paddle. For the first month the paint is softer and it bends with the canvas and doesn't leak. But you can't just keep putting paint on month after month. It gets too thick and heavy, and sometimes peels off in big chips and chunks. Then you have to get new canvas. You can't scrape heavy paint off old canvas. It just tears.
Sometimes when the canvas is getting older and the paint cracks, you can put a sticking plaster over the leak. Mostly when you do that they stay on well, and a dab of paint over the top makes sure of it. We did one of those only yesterday, and it has worked well. Perhaps we will need another one, when I get back, after what's happened on this trip.
I splash out as much water as I can, with my hands, and start paddling home. Back to the pier and the village. Back to Lizzie, and Mum, and tea. I could do with something to eat right now, actually.
I do another turn of paddling backward, keeping a lookout, and turn around to go forward for a while. I look down at the water over the floorboards. I hadn't realised I'd left that much in. If I had tried, I'm sure I could have got more water out than that. I splash some more out, cupping my hands the way you do in the pool when you have a water fight, to get as much as you can in their eyes before they can get yours. But the level doesn't get much lower. It must be coming in lots of little places, but the paint hasn't got that old yet. Or may be it's coming in one bigger place.
I try and check the patch we put on yesterday, but I can't find where it is. I reach out over the edge, holding on with one hand, sliding the other over the side and down around the curve of the canvas as far as I can without tipping over. I can feel a slimy place. I bring up my hand. There is a smear of paint skin on my wet finger. That must be the new patched spot. I put my hand over the side again. Now, where is the sticking plaster. It should be right under the new paint.
The canvas feels smooth and slick. No tell-tale raised edges like the other patches I can feel. It must have got wet, and softened by the water, and fallen off.
So now I have got back that hole we patched up yesterday. I splash the water out again, counting. It takes almost fifty. I paddle till the water needs to be splashed out again, counting. It takes a hundred, just over. That's going to take me more than an hour longer to get back. I'm going to be real late. Oh help, I'm for it now. There's no way I can get home in time for tea. Mum is going to be really angry. She told me this morning "Now don't forget, On Time for tea tonight, Or Else." I don't know what 'or else' she had in mind. They keep changing, the 'or else's. But they're never nice. So I'd love not have an 'or else' tonight.
Oh, but of course I won't get into trouble. This isn't something I've done, not deliberately. (Deliberately means at least a double dose of 'or else', whatever it turns out to be.) Accidents that are your fault are lower down the scale, and accidents that aren't your fault are best of all. If you have one of those and you make the right face when you tell them about it, sometimes there's no trouble at all. This really must be one of those times. Really it must.
So, I'm going to be very late. And it really isn't my fault.
So, feeling a little happier, I splash out the water again, and do a hundred strokes, and splash out the water again for fifty. And I haven't got the water down to the boards yet. Bother. I splash some more, and it takes another twenty before I'm ready to paddle again.
Suddenly I don't feel so happy again. I've only got about 300 hundred strokes nearer home, and the leaks have got worse already. What could have happened?
Then it hits me. The inside of the canoe is usually dry apart from the rare capsize near the beach. But today the inside has been wet, at least down near the bottom, for quite a while. It could have soaked through the old canvas, and through the old leaks from the inside, where we didn't think to paint when we put on patches. And so other patches could be getting soaked off from the inside.
I tighten the straps on the life jacket. Suddenly its warmth feels very nice, even though the sun is still quite strong. But there is a chill in the breeze, now, that wasn't there before. And the ripples on the water are just a bit bigger.
Getting back is going to be a problem. With water in it, the canoe won't be as fast. I'm heading into the breeze, and it might get a bit fresher yet. I've got to stop and splash out. More and more if I'm right about the patches. So I'll be going slower and slower as time goes by. It'll be dark before I make it to the pier. I'll be even slower then, trying to bale, splashing out in the dark. I just might not make it at all.
I might really have to swim for it.
Dad had meant what he said about swimming. I had argued that I already had a canoe and always Wore my Life jacket and Kept a Lookout. But he said that was all window dressing - the creek was only knee deep, and the river it ran into was only waist deep, and anyhow at its widest it wasn't much more than the school pool, and he knew I could manage that easily. But the harbour, that was different. Deep, long distances, storms, strong winds and big waves. Maybe in the dark. Wind and waves that could swamp even a boat, let alone a canoe, and make swimming a lot harder, too. Nothing like the creek, sheltered with houses and trees all around its high banks. No, no going on the harbour except in The Launch until I could swim a mile, easily, and with some to spare. He'd help me, he said.
Mum said he was being too hard. "It's too much to expect from him, at his age." But he said that was all the more reason. For once he got his way with Mum. She said maybe he was right. I stopped eating, I was so surprised. Usually whatever he said, she said the opposite. And stuck with it till he gave way. Not this time, though.
He was as good as his word. Next morning, curled up warm in bed, I had felt a big hand on my shoulder, shaking me. I knew it was Dad, that big, sure grip. "Go away, Dad, I'm asleep." But he had pulled the covers back off my head. It was still dark. He was holding a torch.
"Shsh. Don't wake your brother. Get dressed up warmly, and get your togs and towel. Now. Be quick. I'll see you in the kitchen."
Over breakfast he told me he'd be taking me to the city pool every day before school until he was satisfied I could swim well enough. And this was 'Day One', he had said.
Well, over the following months I'd finally passed his test, but I never dreamed till now that I might really have to put it into practice.
If I have to swim, I'll head for The Island. In fact, even paddling the canoe, with these leaks, it's the only chance I've got. It's closer, and the wind will be helping me, not slowing me down.
I'll be late for tea, for sure, but it won't be my fault. It is the only thing I can do. And it's an accident. I might even get praised for being careful, and Wearing my Life Jacket, and Keeping a Lookout, and Thinking Before I Acted, and all the other things they are always telling me to do. But I always seem to get something wrong, however hard I try to be good. Then they always ask you something like, "Why don't you Think Before You Act?"
And how can you answer that? I always do Think Before I Act, anyhow. It's just that I don't think the things that the grown ups think I should think. Well I'm not a grown up, so how could I? But that doesn't stop them blaming me just the same. It's not fair, that's what it's not.
But there won't be any trouble this time. This time it isn't my fault, after all.
So I face The Island, and go as fast as I can. I paddle and paddle. No counting, just as fast as I can. When the water gets too deep in the bottom, I splash out as fast as I can. Then back to paddling.
I can see the branches on the trees now, above the beach on the side of The Island as I get nearer to it. I really am getting very near. It seems as if I'm about as far from that beach as our bay is from the point to the pier. Ten minutes might do it. Perhaps more like twenty, having to stop all the time and splash out.
The leaks seem to be getting worse and worse. I can only take four or five paddle strokes before I have to splash out again. My arms are hurting. I wish I could stop and rest, but every last patch must have come off and if I can just keep going a few more minutes I think I'll make it.
That's pretty much what Dad used to say, when I was in the city pool, those mornings. "Can you keep going just a few more minutes?" He'd walk along the side, keeping just above me as I swam up and down, while the sun came up and they switched off the big lights.
The first morning I hadn't really thought the pool would be open. It had still been dark when we got there, but he'd locked the car and said, "Come on then." and when we got around the corner I saw that the ticket box was lit up, and the woman took our money. Dad had said, "One half to swim and one to coach." and I had thought how he still knew lots more than I did.
He'd tried to get me to swim with my face down, turning to the side to breathe, but I'd never got the hang of that, and after a few mornings he said, "We aren't going to get anywhere at this rate. I guess backstroke would be OK, perhaps." That morning he got me to go six lengths backstroke before I was too puffed, I said, to do any more. "Can you keep going just a few more minutes?" He asked me, and got me to go another length, then. That was the morning he said "It looks as though we might have a chance." I liked that.
Over the next few months he went with me to the city pool every morning, rain or fine. When it was raining he'd have his umbrella. When it was frosty he'd put on his thick coat. I didn't want to go in when it was raining or frosty, but he'd say "If you go overboard you can't choose your moment. It won't be nice then. You'd best get used to it. And the sooner you make the distance, the sooner you're out on the harbour." He got me to work out how many laps was a mile, and every few days we added on an extra lap.
Some days he would make me go as fast as I could for a lap, and then just lazily for a few, till I got my breath back. He said it wouldn't always be easy going, and I had to build up a reserve. He said it wasn't going to count if I took so long doing my mile that I would starve to death before I drowned. So we stopped adding laps and went for more speed for a few weeks, till he said one day "Just take it easy, and swim as if it had to last for ever, and let's see how far you get." That day I went almost a mile and half, and he said I'd just "earned my Water Wings" and looked as if he might even grin, if he let himself. I knew he meant like an Airman gets his Wings badge when he can fly properly. But I knew that water wings were for beginners, too. That's another funny thing about grown-ups. They sometimes twist things up so they mean one thing and the opposite at the same time.
Well, anyhow, now I could do distance even if the going wasn't easy, and I knew if I had to I could swim it to The Island. Even without a life jacket. The wind's behind me, too. I could do it for sure. But I check the life jacket straps again. In case I have to go down with the ship. After all, I am The Captain. But then I think, that's silly, it's only Lizzie's old canvas canoe.
Well, that's not so silly, really. It's Lizzie's canoe, not mine, and I have to look after it. That's what you have to do it you get a loan of something. Otherwise they won't lend you anything else. And they tell their friends, and pretty soon you're lucky if anyone even talks to you. Unless they want to borrow from you. Then they're all over you like a rash. Borrowing's a funny thing, I reckon.
Now I can see the little ripples running up the sand on the beach. I'm really close. I look over the side. I can see the bottom, so I know it's not much deeper than me. That's how we tell, in this harbour. Because of the mudflats the water's not so clear. If you can see the bottom you can almost stand in it. I push the paddle, which is as tall as me, down into the water. Can I touch bottom? Yes!
I keep paddling, trying to make it to the last little way to the shore, but I've left it too long without splashing out. The canoe isn't quite full up with water, but my weight is enough to make the difference. The sea pours in over the edge, and I stand up in the canoe as it goes down. And end up only waist deep in the water, still standing in the canoe, which is now resting on the bottom!
Well, I know what to do now. Turn the canoe upside down and drag it up onto the beach. It's what we always do when it swamps. That part's easy.
"And what about Lizzie's canoe?" Dad just isn't going to let up. I wish he wouldn't keep on at me. I just want to sit here quiet, which is easy with the racket of the storm all around us. In the warm and the dark, while he drives. I wish he could drive for ever. I'm not sure what's waiting for me when we get to the other end, but it's sure to be a bad flavour of 'or else'.
And I wish he didn't keep making me think about all that's happened today, either. I felt pretty good about it, earlier, but the more he makes me think about it, the worse I feel. I don't like that.
What about Lizzie's canoe? "I've dragged it up high above the high tide line, Dad, and turned it upside down with the paddle underneath. Nobody will steal it. There's nobody living there."
I don't tell him what I saw when I turned it upside down.
With the canoe upside down, I can see what has happened to it while I'd been paddling, shwoosh-shwoosh-shwoosh, from the pier to The Island. And I think, I've been very lucky. If I knew what I was going to see now, I would never have come away from the pier and the bay. Not in this. Not ever.
Almost every patch that's ever been put on that canvas has lifted. Some have come off completely. It's not a canoe now, it's a sieve. It's done it's best, but we hadn't patched it up well enough. And I'd nearly found that out the hard way. Not that it's turning out to be any picnic, as it is. I'm getting my Adventure now. That's for sure.
So what am I going to do? I can't get back in the canoe as it is. I will have to mend it. Or I can just wait for help. They're sure to realise what happened when I don't get back in time, and Lizzie knew where I was coming. I had, after all, Thought Before I Acted.
I could try to find help on The Island, except that nobody lives here now. We all know that.
I can swim to shore. The Island's almost in the middle of the harbour, but it's just off the end of Shipwreck Point, almost two miles of steep, barren tussock and rock, reaching out from the far shore, through the water toward The Island, then stopping abruptly short, falling sheer to the sea, in a bird-stained cliff. You'd think that cliff just kept going down into deep water, the tide rushing through and swirling around the few rocks. Four times a day. Keeping the water deep. Only, you'd be dead wrong. There was no tide movement there. Not at all. No deep water, either. No water at all, to speak of.
At low tide you can walk across the two hundred yards, dryfoot on a sandbank. If you have a small boat you can go through at high tide, but you have to know your tides, and the depth of your boat. A few had got it wrong, and tried to take bigger boats through, over the years. That's how it got its name.
I can't walk it now. The tide had been rising all the time while I was paddling here. I could perhaps wade part way over the sandbank, then swim the rest if the water got too deep. But I wouldn't even have given it a thought except I know I can easily swim the whole way, if I have to. And I still have my life jacket.
But I don't really want to end up, late in the day, wet through, and with two miles to walk in the cold, along the Point, to get to the road. And then try to find a phone or thumb a lift round the head of the harbour, back to the village. That could take a while. Sometimes you hardly get a couple of cars through here in a day. And when we go to bed, most nights there are no cars at all to be heard. I think I might have to wait until morning to get a lift. I don't want to spend the night in wet clothes. I've managed to keep my jumper dry so far and my shorts have nearly dried out by now. I think it would be best to keep it that way. It's still nice and sunny, but the wind is getting up a bit now, and there's a chill in it. And the shadows are slowing getting longer. I've got to keep warm.
I can wait till the tide turns, and when it's low enough, then I can walk over, dry. That would be better. But when will I be able to do that? It was low water just after lunch. So I won't be able to get across, dry, until midnight, at least. And I'm not game to walk the Point in the dark. Not with its cliffs, not without a torch. Especially not now while it's just a new moon. So if I cross at midnight I'll have till wait to dawn before I head for the road. I definitely won't be home until well after breakfast. Maybe nearer lunch-time. They'll have noticed by then that I'm not home. For sure. This is going to be Very Late for Dinner. I can see Mum getting out a real special 'or else' for me. I'll have to let her know much sooner, before they miss me.
"How do you think your Poor Mother felt, when dinner came and went, and you hadn't shown up?" Well, I knew the answer to that one. She really hated it, if I was late for meals. I guess she found me a bit of a handful at the best of times. Worse after my baby brother was born. If I was late she might not let me have anything to eat, or stop my next pocket-money, or make me stay to work in the garden instead of going to play. Or she might make Dad take his belt to me. She only got him to do that the once, though. She gets really angry when I don't do things exactly the way she wants. But he only goes off if I give him cheek when he's already upset about something. He didn't hit me hard, really. He looked as though he would rather have been anywhere else, and he's never done that again, even sometimes when she's angrier than she was then and yells at him to do it.
Luckily, this time, I had only missed dinner. And would be late for bed. That wouldn't be enough to tip the balance against me, surely. I couldn't stand that. He doesn't talk to me much, but I reckon Dad's my friend. Only, it doesn't feel that way when people hit you. That's the very worst part. It is for me, anyhow.
Anyhow, there was no way he was going to hit me now. Not while he was driving round the crater road in a storm. And at night. I wished the storm could protect me from this lecture, too, but it wasn't putting Dad off in the least. By the time we got back to the house I would have got the full earful, and he would make me feel completely stupid, as if I couldn't think at all, just because I didn't yet know all the things that grown-ups know already. It's not fair.
And when Mum got her chance, it would be the same thing all over again, only maybe worse. At least by then Dad would have had his go at me. So even if Mum was very, very angry, Dad might have calmed down and even be on my side. Even a little bit on my side would be good. And I had only missed dinner and would be late for bed. That wasn't serious at all, really. I still couldn't see what all the fuss was about.
Except that I hadn't Told Them. It's bad to be late, but somehow they don't seem to think it's so bad if you've Told Them.
Earlier, out on The Island in the late afternoon, I had thought - if I can't get back, at least I must let them know. Let Dad know, anyhow. Maybe he'll talk to Mum for me. The way he did about the swimming. I wonder if there's something in the old house that can help me get back. Or at least help me tell them I might be late for dinner.
We all know about the old house. It's abandoned now. The Island is just used for grazing. The family who farm Shipwreck Point just let their sheep roam across the sandbank to The Island and back, and the house isn't used any more. I walk up the hill toward the house, thinking about what to look for when I get there.
A mirror, maybe, to flash in the sun. Flash across to the village. Will anyone there notice? Who will even be looking at The Island? Why? They've all got their own things to do. And how can I aim it? I've tried flashing signals to my friends in the city, with mirrors. In Morse. We can see each others' houses and we know our Morse code, and we should be able to do it, if you believe what you read, but it's never really worked for us. You can't see where your little square of reflected sunlight is, even a block away, not even if you borrow Dad's binoculars. So you can't see when it's on or off the face of the person you're trying to signal to. And that's how you signal in Morse. So you can't do it. We tried different ways for a whole afternoon, one weekend. At the end, we had figured out that if you were close enough to flash Morse you were close enough to yell, if you cupped your hands. Still, if there's nothing else going, that's something to try. I wish I was close enough to yell, though. Even with cupped hands.
Perhaps I'll find an old kero lamp. Wait till dark. Signal with the light. You can see house lights and cars as dots across the harbour. They'll see that. If I have to wait till dark, and Lizzie knows where I am, by then someone will be looking out, sometimes, surely. Even if I just leave it alight, without signalling, they'll know someone is here. And they know the house is abandoned so they will have to know it's me. Then they'll know I'm safe, and they won't be worried or angry, and I can walk across at midnight, and be home in time for lunch.
The house is near the top of The Island, but well below the ridge, away from the wind, with lots of macrocarpa trees around. They might have been hedges and wind breaks once, but if they were they've grown way beyond that into huge trees, and some of them have been cut down, over the years. You can tell, because some of the stumps have rotted but others are still quite new cuts.
The house looks freshly painted. Not at all abandoned. There are curtains at the windows and a huge pile of firewood stacked near the porch. Macrocarpa. I go into the porch and try the door. It's not locked. It's a kitchen, clean, with a nice farmhouse smell, food, woodsmoke, oilskins, dog, leather. There are tins and jars on the shelves, and they're not dusty. Or empty. There are a couple of pressure lamps on the mantelpiece, in front of the mirror, and beside them a big first-aid tin, white, with a red cross on the front. You can't mistake it. It reminds me why I'm here. There should be some sticking plaster in it. It's worth a go.
Ten minutes later, perhaps, I'm back at the beach, trying out a piece of the sticking plaster. It won't stick at all. It's like I was trying to stick it on something wet. But the canoe is out in the full sun, and in the wind it must have had plenty of time for the water to dry off the painted surface. I rub it with my fingers. They come away wet. I dry off an area with my shirt tail. My fingers come away wet, again. The canvas is wet through, from the back, and the paint is covered with tiny cracks. I can just see them if I look real close. The canvas has softened and swelled with the water, and the paint has crazed. It's probably never had such a soaking and such a long steady paddling ever before. As fast as I dry off the surface, more water comes through the tiny cracks. Well, if the adhesive plaster didn't hold before, I can't really hope it will now. Just as well to find out while I'm still on the beach. Better than if it had stuck OK and then come off again when I was halfway back. I didn't like it when it happened earlier. It would have been worse on the way back, paddling along, waiting for it to happen. Wondering if it would. Hoping this plaster was better stuff than what we had been using. And getting dark.
Well, the canoe's out. At least till it's thoroughly dry. Needs new canvas, more like. I pull it up nearer the trees, above the steeply sloping shingle and bleached empty shells of the beach. Upside down, paddle underneath. The same as I do with mine at home in the city. It'll be fine. But now what am I to do?
"The least you could have done would to have let us know where you were. Did you think of that?"
Did I what. I had run straight back up the hill to the house. No phone. No electricity. And the sun was still moving steadily down toward the top of the hills up behind our village, on the rim of the old coastal volcano whose crater had been turned into this harbour when the sea flooded in, thousands of years earlier, they said. I'm glad it's extinct. I wonder where we would spend our holidays if it was still active. At least I wouldn't be in this trouble. Not that it's my fault. But they would expect me to Let Them Know. They can get real mad about not being let know. Even if they later find out you couldn't let them know. By then it's too late, they're mad at you already, and they don't seem to calm down quickly. It's easy to get them mad, but real hard to get them unmad again.
I put back the sticking plaster. Close the First Aid box. I see my reflection in the mirror over the fireplace. My hair is all tousled, and my ears stick out. They always have. Mum calls me 'her little Dumbo' and says she could have an operation done to pin them back. I don't like it when she talks that way.
Then that thought goes right out of my head. Mirror! It's just sitting on the mantelpiece, leaning against the wall. I pick it up. It's big, and heavy, but not too heavy. Big will be good, I know. I rush outside with it, as fast as I can and be careful. The sun is still a bit above the rim. There's a big stump near the house. I rest the bottom of the mirror on it. I try to hold it steady in the wind. It's heavy, but the gusts still jerk it around a bit. You can steer it so the bright square of sunlight sweeps across the hill side. Stop when you think it's lined up on our village, now in the shadows, close under the crater wall. Two miles away. Tilt back so the bright square moves away across the grass, down to the water's edge, getting harder to make out the further away it goes. Tilt back further still. Out across the water, I guess. How much tilt is just enough so they can see it in the village, and not be way over their heads? I know this didn't work back in the city, but maybe that's because we used little mirrors we borrowed from our Mums' powder compacts. This one is huge beside them. Flash 'SOS'. Hold it on the village - I hope. Tilt it up, down, up. Three quick flashes, three slow ones, three more quick. Pause. Then again. Pause. Then again. Till the sun touches the crater rim.
If they haven't seen the signals by now, with the sun going down it will be too late. I have to make sure I can find my way across the sandbank in the dark. Put the mirror back. Close the door. Run down the other side of the hill, towards Shipwreck Point, down to the water's edge. The tide is almost full in, now, the water blown into little breakers across the shallows, not much deeper than me, by the rising wind. There's about a football field length of water between me and the Point. I look across, trying to fix a spot that could guide me, at midnight. While I am looking across at that cliff, the sun goes off the bottom of it, and the shadow of the rim starts to slide up its face, then the sun goes off me too. Suddenly the wind has got more chill in it. It feels stronger, too. There's no sense getting cold. I can keep warm in the house. And I can light the lanterns after dark and put them outside where the village can see them, maybe. I turn and start back up the hill.
Then I hear barking. A dog. How did it get here? I run as fast as I can towards where the noise seemed to have come from. Puffing up the slope, I get ahead of the creeping shadow of the rim and out into the sunlight again. I'm about halfway to the ridge, listening for the occasional bark of the dog, when I hear the whistling, too. Not tunes. There's someone here working the sheep. Hooray. Gasping, I reach the ridge, at the highest point of The Island, and come face to face with a man who's just come up the other side. A big, ginger-haired man in overalls and a long oilskin coat, open like a cloak. The shadows catch up and the last of the sun goes off us.
"Well, young fellow, who are you, and what are you doing here?"
Out it all comes, in a rush, I'm so relieved. "I canoed over from the pier, but it got a leak and I tried some of the sticking plaster out of the house but it wouldn't stick and I put the rest back. I would have asked but I didn't know you were here. And the leak stopped me paddling back so I was waiting for low tide, to walk across. And I've got to tell my Mum why I'll be late for tea or I'll be for it. I thought I was all alone. I thought it was abandoned."
"Oh, no. I come over from the Point every few days to look at the sheep, so you'll be OK now. I'll take you back with me, as soon as I've locked up. You're lucky though, I wasn't going to come over today, but it's lambing time, and though the old ewes I've got here don't need any help, I had to get them penned round the sheltered side on account of the storm."
What storm? Then I look around me. Even in the few minutes while we were walking back towards the big grove of trees surrounding the house, the wind had become more blustery, and overhead I can see big storm clouds, still lit by the last rays of the sun, blowing over the crater rim where shortly before it had been clear blue sky.
By the time we get back to the house, the clouds are right over us. There is no sun on them now, but you can still see enough to walk by.
We go in to the house. He takes a torch from his pocket, and quickly shines it round the shelves. "We always keep enough supplies here for a few days. In case we're stranded here by the weather. And if we don't get a wriggle on now, this might be one of those times." We go out onto the porch. He locks the door, and then takes another oilskin from a big cupboard, almost a shed, built into one side of the porch. I hadn't noticed it before.
"Here, this is for you. It will be pouring before we're done." I start to put it on. Then I realise I'm still wearing the life jacket. I'd forgotten all about it. I start to take it off. "No, leave it on, you might need it. Anyhow, the coat's far too big. It will fit anyway." So I put the coat over the top. It is too big. It does up, over the life jacket and all, and drags on the ground a bit, too. "You're fine. Let's go."
He picks up a big pack from floor of the cupboard, puts it on, and padlocks the cupboard door.
We walk together, the dog close by his heel, down through the fields, to a little inlet just round a few rocks from where I had earlier stood looking across the sandbank, looking up at the cliffs.
There is barely any light left now. Almost black. I can only just make out a big, solid, wooden clinker rowing boat, pulled up on the shingle. Old fashioned. One of the men in our village has one just like it. It's been in his family eighty years, he had told me. They're made of curved little planks, all fastened to each other with copper rivets. "Last forever, these. Go anywhere, if you've got oars and a baler." Well, I knew about balers, now. I could have done with one today. Not that it would have helped in the end, I guessed.
"Well, what are you waiting for, give us a hand." Together we pull the big boat down into the water.
"In you hop. First." Actually the dog was well ahead of me, sitting up in the bow with its tongue out.
"But I'm in bare feet, what about your boots?"
"My boots will be wet enough before this night's over. Don't argue. In. Sit down. Here. In the stern."
That's grown-ups for you. The way he was acting he could almost be somebody's Dad. He's strong enough. Pushes the boat out into the water, quite big waves now, then holds it steady and quickly climbs in, grabs the oars and has us well away from the rocks with two firm strokes.
Then he settles into steady long pulls, and we leave the shelter of The Island.
The wind hits us then, side on, and he angles the boat a bit into the wind. So we won't be blown off course, and miss The Point.
"Sit further to your right. So I can see the light."
I look over my left shoulder. Far away, maybe a mile, there is a green light blinking. Quick flash. Off. Long flash. Off.
"When the wind's blowing this way, if I keep the light just there, over the stern, I end up at the Point, right on." And he just keeps rowing.
The wind is still rising, and the first few rain drops fall. Large and fat. You can't see them but you can feel how they are when they land on you.
Then suddenly it's a deluge, pouring onto your head, into your eyes and mouth, down your collar, and you feel it down your back and your clothes getting wet, even though you're wearing a lovely great oilskin. And the wind is howling, too. It whips the rain so it stings your face when you look into it.
He has his back to the rain. But it must be down his neck too. He just keeps on rowing. Pull, pull, pull. On into the dark.
The sea gets choppier, whipped up by the wind, tossing the dinghy around for all it's size. You feel we're not getting anywhere, getting beaten back by the weather. I look back to the friendly light, showing us where to go. I can't see it. Maybe the rain has hidden it.
"Where's the light? Are we all right?" I have to shout as loud as I can to try and be heard over the wind and rain.
"You can't see it from here. It goes behind another headland. We're almost there. We'll be out of the wind in a minute." And suddenly, we are. You can hear the wind, but it's not hammering right at us. It's still raining buckets, but not stinging your face. It's pitch black. How can he know where we are? Then I hear waves on the shore, close by.
"Go, Dog." he yells, and the dog gives a yelp, and is gone. We stop rowing and just float, still tossed heavily by the waves, in a downpour, but at least out of the worst of the wind. "Dog knows the way." he says.
Then we hear the barking. He pulls the oars to turn us towards the sound, then pulls steadily again and in a few moments, between one wave and the next, we ground heavily on what sounds like shingle. "Good dog." he says. Then to me, "Stay there a minute." And I guess he's off over the bow, in the pitch dark, then he calls out, "You come over now and help me pull her up." Together we drag the boat up the beach. I'm going carefully, feeling my way in my bare feet, hampered by the big coat. But there aren't any rocks. It's all even going.
He pulls out his torch. About three feet away, at the foot of a cliff, there is a solid looking chain, fastened to a big concrete block. We pull the boat right up to it, make an effort and turn it over, then padlock it through the big ring in the bow. "It won't blow away now, even if the wind does come around to the East. Is your canoe going to be all right?" Well, I'd thought so before, but I'm not that sure now. It's much, much lighter than this rowing boat. And if a heavy thing like this needs concrete and chain, there's no knowing where the canoe mightn't end up. Well, there's nothing I can do about that now.
"Come on then, the Landrover's up the top, round the other side. Are you OK? Just mind your feet and hang on to my hand." He's been putting his big pack on as he speaks. With his other hand he shines the torch down at our feet, and we edge around the Point, on a narrow shelf in the rock, gradually climbing up from the foot of the cliff, and back full into the blast of the storm. I can hear the waves pounding on the sandbank, by now not far below the surface of the water. I wonder what time it is. It feels as though it's been dark for an hour or more. I can't see anything but the shadow of an oilskin, and a big pair of boots, and the path. Even they are hard to look at, with the rain stinging my face again. I wonder how high we are above the water. I know we've been steadily climbing, and the path is only wide enough for single file, so I'm glad of the big hand that holds mine and draws me up the hill behind him. In the dark, and the driving rain, and the howling and buffeting of the wind, flapping the coat around me.
Earlier, back on shore, my signals had actually been seen. Lizzie had run and told her Dad that I'd gone beyond the end of the pier. She knew his rule; that in her canoe, which wasn't that safe, you had to stay in the bay. And if I wasn't safe she wanted to get help for me. She tried to point out to her Dad where I was, but he couldn't see the canoe at all. He got worried then it might have capsized or sunk, and I would be floundering around out in the deep water. He couldn't see anything with his binoculars, either. He phoned my Dad straight away, and the Police, who said to keep a lookout and phone them back later. My Dad drove over from the City, and arrived late in the afternoon, then spent an hour trying to see some sign of me, through Mr Jones' binoculars, anywhere between the pier and The Island.
Finally my Dad had phoned the Police again. They still weren't too worried, except about it being a canvas canoe, making for The Island, when there was a coastal and farmers' storm warning out. Well, Dad hadn't known about the storm warning. It seemed that nobody had, really. The Police wanted to know more about the canoe. How big was it? What was it made of? What condition was it in? If it had a baler, life jackets, first aid, flares, spare paddle? Dad and Mr Jones had asked Lizzie just what I had with me, and what condition the canoe was in. Everyone was worried when they heard about the patches. Mr Jones told Lizzie she should have told him if it was starting to leak, not taken chances like that. Well, it wasn't really her fault. She never went anywhere in it. She wasn't allowed. It wouldn't have mattered if it sunk. You could always walk up onto the beach, if you always stayed in the bay.
They still kept up a watch through the binoculars when, just before sunset, they thought they saw something flash, briefly, from among the trees near the top of The Island. They watched that spot for a while, but the flash wasn't repeated. I hadn't been aiming well enough. But I knew that, anyhow. At least they had seen me.
They phoned the Police again, straight away, and told them what they had seen. The Police were doubtful. It could have been anything, they said. The boy could have changed his mind and gone around the bays, decided going out into the harbour too risky. Give it a bit longer. In the meantime they would alert the Harbourmaster that his big launch, with the searchlight, might be needed, and they would put a call out to the few settlements around the harbour, so wherever I might come ashore, they would know and call in straight away. They would only have to tell the girl on the switchboard up at the Port, and with the party lines being what they were, she would make sure everyone with a phone had my description within an hour.
They told Dad that if he was right, and it was me signalling, then he should know I was safe, so, if he was right, was there any emergency? And if he was wrong, then we still don't know where he is, so we had better organise for a proper search. He's either drowned, and it's too late, or he's coping OK and we need to find him before he gets too cold or hungry, but he's a big fit boy, and it's summer, so we've got time on our side, they said. My Dad said he could see it might be a good idea to let me stew for a while, in that case, but I know he would have had a job getting Mum to agree.
Well, the Police had known what they were talking about. It was just about at that time that I had been standing by the water as the rim shadow fell on me, while I was looking across at the cliffs of Shipwreck Point, thinking how I could not get up them in the dark. I had been dead right about that one. Without this big strong hand holding me, and the torch, and someone knowing the way, I would have been mad to have tried this. And I could never have found the path on my own, in the dark, anyhow.
The path. After what seems like hours more, it widens out, and levels out, and there's grass underfoot. The wind gusts get stronger and the rain stings more. We must be out in the open, on the flat ridge of Shipwreck Point. The big hand pulls me round to beside him, but doesn't let go. He bends down close and shouts, "It's flat now, but drops, both sides. Hang on." Another gust hits me. I hang on. I don't need to be told. I would be blown away, tumbling over and over, the instant I let go. Over the edge. The whole area is cliff edges. They're everywhere. Even us kids know to be careful when you're on high ground. The sheep seem to understand that, too. It's lucky nobody much ever comes out here. Except us, right now, and the dog, and somewhere a Landrover. I wonder where he's left it.
I don't have to wonder for long. There it is, right in front of us. I almost walked into it before I saw it. The torch doesn't reach far through the driving rain, and the water in your eyes doesn't help, either.
He opens the door and lifts me in, the dog climbing over me, over into the back where it shakes itself all over the inside. He slams the door and goes round. Throws his pack over the back, gets in and starts the engine. We sit there for a moment, feeling how the wind shakes us, and the whistling and flapping of the canvas roof. Then he switches on the headlights and the windscreen wiper, but the water is pouring down the glass anyhow and you can't see much, just a blur of horizontal rain streaks in the lights, and a few tussocks, then blackness. We start to crawl forward, keeping to the hollows along the broad back of the ridge. Not following any path that I could see. "How do you know where to go?" I yell, trying to make myself heard.
"I've been coming out here, day and night, a couple of times a week at least, for thirty-five years, now. You get to know the hollows and tussocks, and the grass is a bit flattened by the driving over it. Not that you could tell in this. It's easier to see in the daylight. And the rain's impossible. We'd be going a lot faster if I could see better." I can only just make out his words under the scream of the wind. No sense trying to talk any more. We sit there together, watching the tussocks appear in a blur out of the dark and slide by back into the dark on each side of us. Deafened by the storm. Rocked by the movement. Still wet through, but gradually warming up inside the huge oilskin coat. My feet are still cold, though. The coat's so big, maybe I can get my feet up inside it. Yes. That's better, up off the cold metal floor.
The dog pushes over from the back, forcing itself into the space beside the door, pushing me toward the middle. Perched up on the seat beside me, it rests its nose on the window sill. I reckon this must be its special spot. I try to stroke it, but its wet fur makes it hard to do. The dog doesn't seem to care, though. It turns and licks my face, then goes back to looking out the window. After a few minutes I can feel its warmth beside me, right through the coat.
About now, if I had known, the Police were searching The Island. They had arranged that when it got too windy or dark for me to possibly get back under my own steam, then the search party would set out. They had left Port on the launch at nightfall. While we were getting into the big old rowing boat.
They had to motor almost the full length of the harbour to get to The Island, taking even longer than usual because of the wind, and the high seas that had built up down the great length of the waterway. When they got there they anchored on the sheltered side, furthest from the Point, to put the search team ashore in a dinghy. Then they had motored slowly, halfway around The Island, up to the sandbank, shining the searchlight through the rain onto the windswept shores as they went. Then back round the other way, right around to the other side of the sandbank. They had swept the sandbank with the searchlight, and the foot of the Shipwreck Point cliffs, easily picking up the rowing boat, where we had chained it to the concrete block.
When they phoned Dad, soon after, to say they had a radio message from the launch that I couldn't be found, they told him all this. They said the search team had found no signs of me. No signs that I had been there. Smithson's farmhouse was locked up secure, with no signs of forced entry. And his dingy was firmly chained to its block under the cliffs at Shipwreck Point. Not that Fred Smithson would be fool enough to be out in it tonight. And with the dinghy chained up they knew he must be on the mainland, so there was no sense following that one up any further.
What they didn't know was that he had in fact been over. Earlier. His wife knew that. To see the ewes. However, she expected him to stay there the night, because the storm would probably stop him getting back.
Being on the party line, she had known all about the missing boy "who they think might have headed in a canoe toward The Island, and the Police are going there to search so if you see him please let us know and save us all a great effort". But there was nothing she could do. Without taking a boat across, nobody could contact The Island anyhow, so the Police would still have to get the big launch out, and go over, whether they knew Fred was there, or not. So she had said nothing. Now she was by the fire, in the big sitting room behind the shop, thinking about him, over on The Island. He would be stretched out in front of the old wood stove with the dog's head on his ankles, if the storm had come up when he had expected. It was certainly here now. The rain, pounding on the iron roof, was almost deafening, and the wind was shaking the old wooden building, trying to tear it right out of the ground. She glanced at the clock. If he'd finished in time to beat the storm he might still have made it back, and if he had, she could expect him any time now.
The first she knew that he had arrived was when the door opened and he was in the room with her, his oilskin dripping, another oilskin bundled wet in his arms, much too big for a lamb, and the dog shaking its way to the hearth, water spraying everywhere.
"Get a blanket," he yells above the wind, "across the sofa, and a towel." and moves to the fireside and waits.
When the blanket has been spread he puts the bundle down on the hearthrug and unwraps the oilskin. She looks at the dripping boy, fast asleep, about twelve she guesses, and starts to dry his hair, while her husband undoes the life jacket, fastened so tight it takes even him some effort to loosen the buckles. They mop off the worst of the water, leaving him in his singlet and shorts for the moment, and bundle him up in the blanket on the sofa. His eyes open, take in the room, the two of them, finally light on the dog. He smiles then, nestles down further into the blanket. "Warm." he says, and closes his eyes again.
"Did he canoe to The Island?"
"How do you know?"
"Geraldine put out a police notice about it."
He nods and smiles, saying nothing, goes into the kitchen. Puts on the kettle.
She goes through to the back of the shop, to the phone, a wooden box on the wall, its mouthpiece on a bracket at the front. She winds the little crank that sticks out the side. Three short, three long, three short. Now everyone will listen. She picks up the earpiece from its hanger on the side of the box.
"Have you found him?" She can only just make out the voice.
"Hello Geraldine." She has to shout. "It's Marion. At the settlement. Yes, he's here now and OK. Sleeping. Get them to bring warm clothes. No hurry. He wasn't ever in any danger."
"I'll let the Port Police know right away. They'll tell the parents. The mother has been beside herself. This'll be a relief."
"Thanks Geraldine." There is a click as the operator unplugs.
"Marion, it's Wendy. Do you need any help?"
"No thanks, dear. He's less trouble than an orphan lamb. When he wakes again I'll give him some toast and cocoa. He's fine, just had a long day, I think. Thank you, everybody. We'll be fine."
There is a chorus of reassurances and goodnights, and she hangs up, goes back to the fire.
"We're lucky the line hasn't come down." she says.
By the time my Dad gets there, I'm properly awake, and I've had something to eat. Mrs Smithson said I could have anything in the shop that I wanted, but if I wanted something real quick she already had everything ready for scrambled eggs and toast, with cocoa, if I'd like that.
I sit up on the sofa in front of the fire, wrapped in their big warm blanket, the dog lying on the mat in front, and munch my scrambled eggs on toast. I've never felt so hungry in my life. The cocoa's too hot. I have to wait while it cools, but then it gets a skin on it. Mrs Smithson says would I like the skin taken off and gets a spoon and takes it off, and holds it for the dog to lick, then takes the spoon back out to the kitchen. I think she's great. I wish my Mum was like that. Mr Smithson I'm not so sure about. He's another one you have to watch their eyes, and he says less than most, but I think he smiles a bit more. Real smiles that you can see. Mrs Smithson tells me where I am, and who they are, and who lives there. She asks me what happened and what I would have done if I hadn't heard the dog. They don't have any children. I thought he did. He knows how to look after, though. That's why I thought he did.
I have to listen carefully to hear what she's telling me, sitting beside me on the sofa, with her head close beside mine, both of us almost shouting. I've never heard wind and rain like this before. I can't think how I could have slept through it. She smells nice. Not perfume, or powder. Just nice. She tells me they had let me sleep until they got a call from Brown's farm, that they had seen the car go past, and that was when they had woken me.
"Come on, youngster, wake up. Your father will be here in twenty minutes. How would you like a bite to eat while you're waiting?" Well, the waiting doesn't sound that hot an idea, but they don't give me any time to think about that, and I've only just finished the cocoa when the dog suddenly gets up, and goes to the door, and puts its nose against the crack. Mr Smithson goes out into the shop. The noise of the wind gets louder for an instant, then I hear a door slam, and a moment later my Dad comes in. He looks like he's going to cry.
"What the hell do you think you've been up to? Your mother's been worried half to death."
Mrs Smithson puts her hand on his arm. "Good evening. I'm Marion Smithson. Your son is safe and well. He hasn't been in the slightest danger. He's warm and he's fed. He's had a good sleep. If we could've had the phone on The Island you would never have had any need to worry." She has put her face quite close to his, where he's standing over me now, to be heard without yelling at him. My Dad's not as tall as Mr Smithson. But he's not a fool, either. He knows she doesn't want a fuss here.
He glances at her, and replies "Thank you very much for all that you have done, I can't think how we could ever repay you for your kindness and the trouble we have caused you." He sounds a bit like a wind-up doll. I've never heard him talk like that before. Almost as if he's saying lines that have been written out for him to say to her. But it's me he's looking at as he finishes saying it, and his face has been getting redder and redder.
Then he sort of almost shakes himself, sort of like the dog but without actually doing it, and then he looks down at the bag he's been carrying, and pushes it out toward me. "Here. Go and get yourself dressed. You've caused more than enough trouble for one day. I'll talk to you later." All at a half roar over the wind and rain.
Mr Smithson takes me out to their bathroom and I change into the warm clothes Dad has brought, with my thick socks and my big jumper that I usually only wear in the winter, and I go back in, and they're all sitting by the fire now, Dad with a cup of tea and beside him a plate with the chocolate biscuits he loves but Mum says he shouldn't, and he's smiling. He doesn't look at all angry now. But he looks up and sees me and suddenly he's angry again. They all stand up.
"Thank you very much for your help, Fred, Mrs Smithson, I'll let you know how we get on, and if you see the canoe, please do let me know, though I don't hold out much hope."
"It's been no trouble at all. He would have been fine anyhow. He had it all worked out properly and would have got himself back to you safe and sound on his own steam, but a bit hungrier, though."
We go out through the shop, out to the corrugated iron veranda with the rain on it rattling like a machine gun. Deafening. Dad's car is parked in its shelter. I get in, and while Dad's going round the car Mr Smithson reaches in and squeezes my shoulder and Mrs Smithson strokes my cheek. Their mouths move but you can't hear a thing. I yell thank you and they nod. I reckon they couldn't hear me either. Dad starts the engine, Mrs Smithson suddenly leans down and gives me a kiss, then slams the car door, and I wave to them both, and we drive off into the dark.
Now we're well over half-way home. The storm has eased off. So has Dad.
"We've got to talk about how we deal with your mother. She's been beside herself with worry. I phoned her from the store that you really were OK and she was furious that you were so irresponsible. And you didn't let her know before dinner. What are you going to say to her?"
"Gee, I dunno, Dad. What do you think I should say?" This was more like my Dad again.
"What if you were looking after your brother for me, and you left him somewhere quite safe for him, but he did something really stupid, even for him, and you couldn't find him. What would you feel like, and how would you explain his disappearance - to yourself as well as to me?"
"Do you reckon Mum feels like that, Dad?"
"Yes, and I think she's fonder of you, than you are of your brother. She was also very worried that you might be hurt and need help and she couldn't get it to you. She's put her life into you boys. She wouldn't want to lose either one of you. No way. Now, what are you going to say to her?"
I try various things. The only one that he thinks will do is say that I'm sorry, and I never meant to worry you, and if I knew more what it was going to be like I never would have done it, but I didn't know what it would be like, and because I didn't know it was stupid to try and I'm really very sorry and I won't ever do anything like that again. He says that ought to go down fine. If anything will.
Then he asks me what I'm going to say to Lizzie and to Mr and Mrs Jones. They've treated me like one of their family, he tells me. He says they felt responsible, because if they gave Lizzie a dangerous toy which killed one of her friends, it would be their fault. I say I never thought about that and he says to think about it now. Then a long pause, and he says "What about Lizzie's Canoe?" Well, he asked me that one earlier, and now it's had time to sink in.
"We'll get it back from The Island, Dad."
"No, it's not there now, the Police checked all round, remember. It's long since blown far away and pounded on the rocks somewhere. So, what are you going to do about Lizzie? You can't just leave her with all the worry, and being told off by her parents for not telling you the rule that you only use the canoe if you promise to stay in the bay."
"Well she did sort of yell something about it as I was leaving, but that was the first I knew of it and I didn't really believe her."
"That's not going to go down really well, is it? And what about her canoe?"
"Well, I'd give her mine, except it's much better than hers is. Was."
Dad doesn't say anything. He just stops the car at the side of the road, and turns and looks at me. And waits.
"OK, I'll give her my canoe, then. But you gave it to me Dad. Is it right for me to give it to Lizzie like this?"
"Not really, I expected you to take better care of it than that."
I open my mouth, getting ready to say that it wasn't mine that has got damaged, then it hits me that he's got me again. There's no answer to that one. I hate that. He's ahead of me all the time.
"Will you help me bring it out from town, Dad?"
"Yes, but there's no guarantee they'll accept it. And I'm not replacing it for you. You've done it to yourself. You have to take the consequences yourself. You're big enough to make it to The Island, after all." He's got me again. He turns back to the road and drives us the short distance home.
We get out of the car into a calm, moonless night. Clouds clearing to show the stars. Cold, not much wind any more. Bushes and trees still dripping. Mother running out from the house, the people from next door following.
Tears, hugs. Hustling me into the house. Another hug. Crying and smiling and angry at me all at once.
"How could you? What have you got to say for yourself? You should be ashamed. What got into you? Your Dad says they've fed you and you know what he thinks about all this, don't you? How could you? And poor Lizzie and the Joneses. And what about her canoe? And just look at the time. You go off to your bed. At once. I don't want to hear another word from you. Off you go." So much for Dad making me work out what I was going to say. He needn't have bothered. I was so worked up to say it, I feel quite disappointed not to.
"But Mum ..."
"Not a word, I said. Off." Another hug, wipes at her eyes, pushes me out of the room. I catch a glimpse of Dad as I go. He's grinning at me. I'll never understand grown-ups.
I get into bed, and the next thing I know Mum is shaking me.
"Up you get. It's late. Your Dad's gone into town long ago, and you have to go down to see Mr Jones."
Mrs Jones opens the door. She doesn't say anything. Just lets me in, and walks down to the study, and opens the door. I go in. She closes me in with Mr Jones.
Well. Mr Jones is the hardest one of all to deal with. He's so kind and gentle, but now I see him sad, too. If he was sad before I never saw it. It must have been what happened yesterday. He doesn't say anything. I tell him I'm sorry, and all the other things. I offer the canoe. He nods, slowly. Still says nothing for a while. Just looks at me. Sad. Then he lets me have it. Softly. I feel like crying. I wish he'd yell at me instead.
"In this house we have rules. You can't live in the country or near the water without them. Your Dad's canoe rule is Life Jackets. My canoe rule is Only in the Bay. I don't know if Lizzie didn't make it clear, or if you decided to ignore her. I am very disappointed in both of you, over this. Lizzie is very upset after what I said to her. I don't think she will want to see you for a while. I accept the canoe on her behalf. She is only to use it herself. It was asking too much of her to supervise other children. You go and let yourself out now. I don't think you would want to deal with Lizzie or her mother right now. And they don't want to deal with you. Not for the rest of these holidays, at least. I won't see you out myself. I'm not very strong today. Yesterday took a great deal out of me. I have been very sick for a long time, and I'm supposed to avoid stress. You and Lizzie have been far from helpful. I'm very glad you are safe and well, of course. Very glad indeed. But I would much rather this whole thing had never happened. Never at all." Then he just looks at me for a few moments and I wish a hole would open up so I could get away from those eyes.
Then he glances at the door, and I'm across to it, out, close it softly, down the hall, quietly out the front door, almost before I've taken my next breath.
We went back to the city the following day. Dad came and got us with the car and trailer. My canoe was on it. We took it down to Lizzie's. I knocked at the door but there was no answer. Dad helped me take the canoe off the trailer and put it in Lizzie's boat rack. As we left in the car I turned to look at the house and saw Lizzie standing in the kitchen, watching.
Her brother never speaks to me, back at school. It is his last term, and he mightn't have talked to me, seeing I'm in my first year, anyway. But now when he sees me his face goes still and he walks off another way. If we come face to face in the halls, you'd think I was invisible. He keeps walking as if I wasn't there. I think he must be sad that his Dad has died. Just a week after I went to The Island, too. I don't think I'll rush down to their house these coming holidays. Maybe I'll ask Dad if can we stay in the city this time.
There is one thing I'm still puzzled about, though. Why hadn't they borrowed one of the outboards around the village, and motored out where they thought I might be? Not just keep standing on the shore peering through the binoculars, once they had worked out that they couldn't see me with them. The outboard would have got to The Island and back in twenty minutes. They would have found me for sure. I was out there for three hours, paddling and baling, in a dead straight line. Even if they couldn't see me from shore they couldn't have missed me if they had been out there in a boat. I daren't ask Dad, though. He'd just say I was giving him cheek.
And now I can never ask Mr Jones.
Copyright © 1998 Peter Leon Collins