Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Spindrift - Short Story

As with 'Beer Mug' followed by 'Out of the Mouths' so with this story, 'Spindrift' following on from 'Insecurity': I took a story which was only semi-fictional and then produced a truly fictional version along the same lines. This story is even more influenced by a kind of nostalgia for tendencies of the 1970s. As I have written before I totally subscribe to the 'Life on Mars' view that the 1970s were very bleak, unpleasant times. However, there were elements from that decade that I somehow held in affection.

A lot of this stems from walks on Autumn Sundays along the canals and navigations where I grew up bisecting with the homespun tendencies of the 1970s. Folk music experienced a huge revival in the 1970s. My parents were into jazz, but the parents of some friends were folkies and though they worked in offices certainly looked like they would be happier at the helm of a narrow boat. One father in particular seemed frozen in 1975 well into the late 1990s (he may still be, I have not seen him since). He bore a striking resemblance to the actor William Squire who appeard in 'Where Eagles Dare'(1968) and played Hunter in the series 'Callan' during its 1970-2 run. Anyway, they would put on folk records when we came round and some of the titles gave me ideas for songs in this story.

Funnily enough because the woman in my house is a smoker she has become irritated by the regular anti-smoking advertisements on commercial radio and so she sought out a BBC station (which are advertisement free). We tried Radio 3, which is the classical channel, but the modern compositions sound terrible and we could not get on with them at all. So we tried Radio 2 which is a strange beast as consecutive records can cover the past 70 years of music, so you get pop stuff but also oddities. They also have specialist music programmes in the evenings (unfortunately no Gothic music specials). On Wednesdays it is folk music and so suddenly I am hearing all this stuff while I do the washing up and a lot of it seems no different to what I heard at my friend's house in the late 1970s.

This folk fad seemed to come along at the same time as self-sufficiency (ironically promoted by a comedy series 'The Good Life' (1975-8)) was popular especially with my parents who grew all their own vegetables and fruit and collected the harvest of wild blackberries, sweet chestnuts and rosehips and produced their own wine and jam and baked their own bread. If I had not been forced labour in these projects I think I might have held them with even more affection. There was also a lot of reconstruction of canals at this time usually by amateurs reopening over 500 miles of canals from 1946 to the present day, with a large upswing of projects launched in the late 1960s and in the 1970s. I suppose all of this was from hippies getting old and looking for things that they could do when they had families and stuff. It was a very respectable British form of hippy culture, of course heavily dented by the greed of the Thatcher era.

Out of this mishmash of cultural influences plus my never-happened relationship with Kate of the narrow boat came this story. Like many of my stories it is about considering options and balancing a life on fixed lines against something more random, certainly frightening but perhaps freer.


Steve strummed the last chord and bowed his head to their applause, that was his encore for the night. He threw back his tied back hair and walked over to the bar, he wanted to make the most of the half hour before closing time.

Sue nodded to Ian behind the bar and he pulled the pint of bitter before Steve had reached it.

Sue watched the musician walking casually but with the spring of a performance well done in his step. She was a plump woman, her face reddened by the heat of the audience. She had dressed in her best pink blouse and her long denim skirt that smoothed out the features of her body.

“Thanks Ian.” Steve said as he sipped the bitter, used to the barman standing him one a night as well as the pay he got.

“Not me.” the lanky man replied turning to serve thirsty customers at the other end of the brown burnished bar. Sue stepped up beside Steve as he wiped froth from his straggly tan beard. She dragged her bar stool with her.

Steve drunk again from the glass and only looked up when she said his name. He said nothing except look into her round blue eyes.

“Long time.” she said, just audible above the noise of the customers.

“Thanks for the beer.” He said.

She just shrugged and smiled, “Good show.”

“It was better with you singing the 'Weaver’s Song' and remember, must’ve been two years back I even got you up on 'Traveller’s Tale'. Do you sing much these days? Down in the town?”

“No, too busy.” She stared past him through the window which looked down to the lights of the estate, but the ones she had left on in her house were obscured by a bush. “Sorry I wasn’t here last year.”

“Or this Spring.” he added calmly.

“Mmm, you must becoming to the end of the season. We only see you on the way out and the way in.”

“That’s what you get for living on a branch canal, move up to the main network and you’d see me all Summer, but would you like all those tourists.”

“Different people to meet.” was her only reply.

“There’s only a couple of pubs between here and the yard, the one at the flight’s really the last.”

“I caught the bus up there once when you were there, nice place.”

“Yeah I remember, the beer’s better here though. I got no-one to buy it for me either.”

Sue sipped her own pint, looking down his battered corduroys to the boots on his feet.

“I paid off the boat, it’s all mine and I made well this Summer, a couple of new pubs, some new material, I got the books last Christmas, you’d like it.”

“I know, you always do the best.”

“Don’t embarrass me.” He said draining the last drops of beer. he nodded to Ian. “So where is he?” Steve said, almost startling Sue.

“Germany.” She said, the suddeness of the question catching her off guard and sweeping through the cautious protection she had woven in her mind. “We got Mum and Dad’s place, they left for Spain, its cheaper out there. I reckon they both ain’t got too long.”

“Hard life and all.” Steve murmured.

Sue pre-empted his next question. “He’s alright, but we don’t get anywhere ’cause we’re not married, and he wants a kid next time he’s home, yeah. And why don’t I come with you, ’cause is it any better on a boat than in the house down there.” She gushed on through the points they both new.

“’Cause it’s your choice not what I say, and we work for ourselves. You wouldn’t have been back four years ago in the Spring and the Autumn and the next. You came to this town six years ago, I’ve been coming twelve, and you’re the only one now whose as regular as me. It was Jon behind the bar two years ago, Bill before that and Geoff probably the first you remember, but it’s been Sue in front of it lunchtimes and evenings for my stay, each year. Where do you want to be the permanent fixture?”

Sue said “It’s getting late, see you tomorrow lunchtime.” She blew a kiss near his cheek and left through the main door onto the towpath. Outside in the light leaking from the pub and the streetlights of the narrow road to the town she could see his boat. He had passed up the red, green and black that made all the boats look like a fleet, some went as far to hate him for it, but she preferred his colours, light and dark blue with brown at the edges. She smiled and turned to the road.

Sue sat there in the thick sweater and pale jeans, her feet in thick knit socks, anticipating it to be colder than it was in this late September sun. She had already arranged the cassettes into ones from the shops and others peddled from back stage, the kitchen was neater and the spilt coffee cleaned away. She wandered back and forth before folding the bedding and pushing the bed back into its day place.

She pushed her bags along with her feet, and slumped down on the long cushion of the bench. From here she could hear the distorted sounds of the music in the pub, and in her trance hardly noticed them dying away. She dozed until the boat rocked and she heard Steve climb aboard. He pushed open the small doors and slid down the wooden steps into the boat. He was silent, but he could see his expression change.

“Well that’s it for this year.” he said, as he had two Autumns past. “Should be up by the flight for fiveish, time for tea before work.” He laid the guitar down on the bench and wandered to the kitchen. “This place is a mess, I should keep it clean, seems no sense when it’s only for yourself.”

Sue smiled. “Sure.” she said.

“Beans on toast.” Steve shouted back. Sue could smell the gas being lit and a wave of warmth sweep down the cool air of the barge.

“Yeah, I think we better get underway cook if you’re going to make five. I’ll drive, you’ve been drinking.” She said jokingly.

She disappeared up on deck and heaved the peg from the front then jogged back to the rear to pull out that one as the front slowly drifted away from the bank. She jumped on board and remembered why Steve had no flesh on him despite the beers. Sue fired the engine and the barge moved away slowly, soon at its top speed.

Sue began to sing the verses of the 'Weaver’s Song', her voice drowned by the sound of the engine. It was hard now, but she was on her way, see what comes when she was back next Spring. Pass through that lock when she reached it.

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