Three Almost Men in a Boat

We were different as chalk and two cheeses. Chris was the chalk. A bricklayer, who even at his young age had acquired great skill. With flamboyant arrogance he would pick up a brick, toss it in his hand and with a lightning trowel, double dab, place it along the line with an educated tap, scrape and it was in position for eternity. In the early 1960s extensive building of council estates meant good money was to be earned. In spite of we three being almost the same age, Chris was already driving a green Hillman Super Minx while John Martin and I were wrestling with Latin verbs and eating Mars bars with our third of a pint of milk at grammar school.

I couldn’t possibly be objective in the description of myself back then, save to say I’m a typical Pisces. Dreamer, romantic, introvert or put more succinctly in my case, just plain lazy. John Martin modelled himself on Elvis. He manicured his quiff constantly with a comb, drawn with a flourish from his back jeans pocket. He always managed to get on the school bus in front of me, nab the window seat and now, as we rowed the length of Oulton Broad to the North Bay, one on each oar, he constantly out-pulled me and the boat kept slewing off course to my side.

“For Christ-sakes John, do you have to keep proving a point. Ease off for a couple of strokes so I can catch up.”

Chris sprawled across the stern, gasping on a roll up, flicking the ash over the side and smiling at the competition being played out in front of him.

“Now, now children. Keep the toys in the pram.”

It was his day off and to quote him, doing FA today except driving there and back. That was exactly what he was doing, nothing, although somehow managing to keep a sort of order on the ship.

The boat rammed into the reeds at North Bay.

Mr Collins, the boat owner, told us to bring back Number 6 looking as we found it. No groundbait over the floorboards or seats. Mud weights clean. No fag burns on the woodwork. Four pm, no later. And don’t piss in the bilges. Use the tin. Chris suggested to keep the boat clean we should push the oars into the mire and tie up to them, instead of using the mud weights, which usually came back up with half the riverbed on them slurping all over the floor. The oars would wash clean as we rowed home.

We set up and fished. And fished. The sun beat down without mercy on our shadeless habitat. The fish were having a day off. Chris seemed to find it impossible to have a day off from his building site banter. He told us that with two mates from the site they built a garage for this toff on a Sunday. They started at 6 am and by mid afternoon the three walls were finished. They knocked on the door for the money, agreed as cash in hand. He said he’d give them half as they’d been too quick. They argued, then took the money. While they cleared up the toff came out of the house with his caddie and clubs.

“Just make sure you clear up properly lads. ”

When he’d gone around the corner in his Jag, they took three sledge hammers from the van and knocked down a half of each wall.

We lived on the same street on the council estate. Queens Crescent. The estate was built on land purchased by the council from Oxford university and the streets were all named after the Oxbridge colleges. Chris and myself lived the bottom of the hill in the thick of the estate. John’s house backed onto the first row of the private houses. Our parents got on together, but the Martins projected an air of being a slight cut above the other four. Mary Martin in particular used words we hadn’t heard before, rolled out like fine juicy plums.

Throughout the day holiday cruisers passed us, often with bikini girls on board. Why is it people on boats always wave? Do they feel self conscious under scrutiny as they pass by slowly? Chris would nod back sagely. John Martin would get his comb out and I would return a half hearted slightly embarrassed wave. I noticed if there were no girls on board, the comb would stay in the pocket.

Sometimes a vision comes you can never forget. Chris painted this one. He and his labourer picked up two nymphs at the Pleasure Beach in Great Yarmouth. After a ride on the Big Dipper, the four of them went for another ride in the sand dunes behind it. When they’d finished, the girls pulled up their pants, straightened their skirts and with a ‘see ya around’ were on their way as if nothing had happened. Chris and his mate walked briskly back to the Hillman, where they took a bottle of Dettol from the glove compartment, and each tipped half the bottle over their John Thomas.

We all sat in silence. Chris took a puff on his cigarette and shrugged his shoulders.

“Well you can’t be too careful, can you?”

After a few seconds all three of us were consumed by uncontrollable laughter. Friendship, what a wonderful thing when it sings.

Back in town there were two main hangouts, coincidentally opposite each other on England’s Lane. The Chalet was a coffee bar with private cubicles and floral hanging baskets around the door. This was John Martin’s haunt. Opposite was the Durban, which had a plate glass shop front, usually with a few Nortons and Triumphs parked on the pavement outside. The leather clad bikers sprawled at the Formica tables around the room, such that just six of them seemed to fill it. The juke box played endless Eddie Cochran. Chris and I would make a beeline for the pinball machine and play until Madge the cafe owner called time on us. The object was to get five numbers in a row, easing the silver balls home with calculated nudges, without tilting the machine and forfeiting the game. We shot alternate balls and on just one occasion got the five. The machine went into overdrive clicking up replays and Madge paid us for them before resetting it. She was a generous girl, serving rolls with doorsteps of cheese and coffee that knocked your socks off, but the highlight were her Cokes. She kept the bottles in an ice cream fridge and they froze to a mush popping the caps with the pressure, with a little plug of ice sticking from the neck. There was nothing better on a hot day than coaxing one of these back to life and sipping the just thawed cola. Sometimes one of the bikers would go out the back with Madge for a few minutes. I never thought too much about this, but Chris said she had to make ends meet.

I thought I could do with one those Cokes there and then. Chris checked his watch.

“Last cast chaps, five minutes to packing up.”

He inspected his hook and cast out. I’m sure it was the same maggot he’d been using for the last hour. Most of the others in the tin had made a dubious escape into the bilge water and I couldn’t help wondering what the smell would be like in a couple of days of this heat. John Martin loaded so many of the larvae onto his hook they were wiggling up the line two inches above the hook. He stood up, presumably for a better cast. On the backswing I noticed from the corner of my eye Chris giving a little double thrust of his hips, enough to rock the boat. John Martin dropped his rod and fell backwards, initially saving himself by grabbing the end of the oar. Chris and I moved over to the other side to counterbalance the weight, otherwise we would have capsized. Things thereafter seemed to proceed in a slow, but inevitable fashion. The oar sunk more deeply into the mud. The securing ropes unraveled until John Martin was leaning backwards horizontally like a yachtsman on a trapeze. We could not move to help him or the boat would have lurched over. Finally the oar snapped and John Martin became one with the muddy water and ooze.

As we paddled back, the plan was to quietly tie up and slip away. I don’t know what exactly attracted Mr Collins to the end of his landing stage. He was standing as close as possible to the end with his legs apart and his arms folded. As we approached he became somewhat more animated. Maybe it was the fact we had gone over the hire time, but more likely it was the sight of Number 6 zig zagging down the broad, with one oar being passed through the air from one side to the other. John Martin was snatching the oar from me and muttering about his ruined jeans and lost comb. The stern was awash with mud and water from where he had been hauled back into the boat. Chris sat in the bow humming a hornpipe.

“Hooray and up she rises. Uh-oh lads, there may be trouble ahead.”

 

“What time do you call this? What’s happened to the other oar? Look at the state of my boat. Have you bastards been swimming?”

So many questions. We tied up letting the tirade pass overhead. Eventually Chris appointed himself spokesman as he unloaded the gear.

“The oar broke and he fell in (which was ostensibly true). It must have been rotten.”

“Rotten my arse. That was a new oar. You hooligans have been skylarking. I’m calling the police. You’ll have to pay for it.”

I nudged Chris and nodded towards the mud weights which were sitting pristine, black and shiny in the bow of the boat. We walked toward the Hillman, gathering pace and I noticed in front of me Chris’s shoulders rising and falling sharply. Mr Collin’s rant was becoming fainter.

“I’ve got your number, lad. It’s no laughing matter. And don’t you come back here ever again…..”

We never did. A few weeks later Chris bought his own boat and trailer, just big enough for two. Friendships continued for a year or so, then we went our own ways.

 

Some forty years on, Chris turned up at my father’s funeral looking fit and well and none the worse for laying bricks in all that time. He crushed my hand as I shook his.

“I thought I’d find you here,” he said.

He was with Sal, his sister, and John Martin’s mother, Mary, who looked frail but was still sharp in her mind. Mary told me John had moved to the south coast and made a fortune as an estate agent. She hadn’t seen him in years and it was Sal who now cared for her. Sal, the girl next door who I paid no attention to had grown into a beautiful and considerate woman. I felt sorry for Mary, being the last surviving member of the group of parents. How exposed that must have felt. The four of us entered that bubble of reminiscence and I was transported back to the 1960s, so much so that I forgot that this was my father’s wake. I realised I had been laughing and joking with them which must have seemed worse than inappropriate to the rest of the gathering.

I made no arrangements to meet with Chris again. It was a moment in time not to be repeated, as was that boat trip at Oulton Broad. We were three almost men in a boat, now on the threshold of old age. I know my father would not have minded our get together at his funeral. On the way home, I found myself humming his favourite song, played at the cremation, “there may be trouble ahead, let’s face the music and dance.” God rest his soul.

And God bless all friendships, be they old or new.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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