This is for those who asked for more of the book. It’s a series of short stories so you may get little snippets of narrative twice, and I haven’t yet decided whether they will be told chronologically or thematically. It’s a work in progress:
Rob Elliott was a porter at Kingston Upon Thames Hospital, where I was a student nurse. He was broad shouldered, narrow hipped, blond, laconic, and everyone, but everyone, fancied him. It amazed me that out of all the nurses and care assistants and kitchen staff, hundreds of young women, he chose me. The thought that anyone wanted me was intoxicating. That’s what it is to be 19.
His family and his life were totally new to me; I had known only cold and unloving parents, and the Army. For ten years I had lived in a strictly controlled house where I wasn’t welcome and barely tolerated, so my life seemed stultifyingly respectable, boring and repressed, compared to Rob’s. Just nine years older than me, he had been in 3 Paras, had served in Aden, was already competent and confident, a man of the world. I was over-awed. There was a para’s beret by his bed, pieces of Army uniform, a belt here and a shirt there, scattered around. He had left the military but it seemed that the military hadn’t left him. As an Army brat myself, I completely understood his feelings – and it was just another reason to fall in love with him. I liked soldiers.
As if to underline the difference between us, and to entice me into his world, while my step-mother and dad lived in a neat pebble-dash semi, all net curtain and mowed lawns, Pop and Mum Elliott lived on a converted lifeboat on the Thames, in the shadow of a railway bridge. Pop was an ex merchant seaman, many years into retirement, happily pottering about on his mouldering but much loved boat. They were messy, lovable, contented, full of laughter, and I was enchanted by them just as much as I was besotted with their son. After my rigidly correct family, their lifestyle, their casual approach to respectability, and their obvious affection for each other, was a magnet to me.
Rob’s sister, Pat, lived with her husband, Roy, in North London in a house that should have been gracious, and comfortable, but instead was shabby and cluttered, reeking of dogs. It wasn’t quite filthy but it was certainly getting on that way. Pat, ten years older than Rob, bred Standard Poodles, lots of them, and these great big lolloping farting things lived in the kitchen, the living room and the tiny back yard. Roy was something to do with TV transmission, but he was no more than a silent shadow at the back of every family scene, his clothes crumpled and his thick glasses smeared, a shambling apologetic figure. I could never quite imagine him at his job, whatever that might involve, but it was part of the family narrative that he was a technical genius and that his work was far too complicated for any of us to understand. When I visited them at home the first time I was shocked and wrong-footed by the clutter, the stench and confusion of that house. I didn’t know where to look, how to ignore that there was a huge dog turd in the middle of the kitchen floor – had anyone else seen it? Surely they must have? Pat was tall and brisk, wearing clothes that wouldn’t have been out of place at Badminton Horse Trials, and although they were well worn and not quite clean they had obviously been, some time back, expensive. I couldn’t make sense of this well spoken woman, with her anomaly of a husband, and the house full of untrained dogs, the floor covered in newspapers, the work tops given over to dog grooming stands and driers, the walls peppered with fading rosettes and certificates, dusty trophies scattered around. Musty chaos. They had a son, Nigel, 5 years old, and he was the spitting image of his uncle, Rob. None of his classmates ever visited, and Pat was always too chaotically busy to take him anywhere, so his playmates were dogs, his toys were dogs, and that meant that he didn’t have to bother too much with speech. And nobody had to bother too much with him. When the dogs were fed, so was he (not, thankfully, the same food), he was bathed and cared for as if he was a puppy, with the same casual affection, the same lack of conversation. Every weekend, it seemed, there was a dog show to attend in the Lake District or Wales, or a stud dog to collect from Birmingham, or a litter being born in the tiny dining room.
Mum and Pop viewed Pat with the kindly acceptance that they bestowed on the rest of the world. Pat was just Pat. There was no changing her. In time I began to question their unthinking acceptance of everything – was it A Good Thing, or just feckless? Had they found a level of Zenlike peace, or was it simply that they couldn’t they be arsed to care about anything much? But these questions didn’t occur to me until much later on, when things were beginning to unravel.
There was another Elliott son, Charles, who lived in Essex. Charles, twelve years older than Rob, was the white sheep of the family – he lived in a normal and peaceful house, had a normal job as a telecom engineer, a child who had friends, and a wife who didn’t spend half her life shampooing dogs or casually scooping up their droppings. We saw very little of Charles and I was barely aware of him until I had been married to Rob for some months.
Mum and Pop were a delight. I loved them almost as much as I loved their son. Life on their boat was muddled and messy but always quietly happy, and even now if I catch a whiff of paraffin I am transported to 1968 and a cosy little cabin, lit by Tilley lamps, rocking gently as larger boats passed by. Pop wore two hearing aids but the batteries were often flat, and just as often the aids would scream so loudly that we would cover our own ears and Mum would wave her hands at him, or hit him with whatever came to hand, until he turned them off and the screaming stopped. He laughed a lot, did Pop, and then his false teeth would slip and he’d clamp his hand to his mouth, like a naughty little lad, his shoulders shaking. He loved rituals, familiar jokes, repeated one liners. Every time the biscuit tin came out he would tell his wife that it was a waste of money to buy biscuits as she did – “Go to Woolworths, to the broken biscuits bin. Half the price. Nothing wrong with a broken biscuit.” This became such a routine statement that one day Mum could bear it no more and she snatched the tin back from him, put the lid on, and threw it on the floor with some force. Pop stared. “There” she said, picking it up “There’s your bloody broken biscuits. Now will you give it a rest?”
The hearing aids could make life interesting; Pop was a sociable man, friends with everyone who lived on or near the river, always ready for a chat. One morning he was on the deck, and we were in the galley, when another elderly man, Malcolm, passed by and the conversation that followed had us crying with laughter, enjoying the absurdity and too gleeful to hurry up on deck to explain the misunderstanding. Malcolm remarked that the police were dragging a dead body from the river. Pop said sagely “You’d think they had better things to do.” A bit perplexed, Malcolm said well, someone had to do it. “Can’t see why,” said Pop “They rot away eventually.” “They what?” said Malcolm. Pop said “Rot. Rot. They fall apart given a bit of weather.” Malcolm said “But you can’t just let them rot!” and Pop replied with an airy “Why not? There’s so many of them – they don’t let you pull ‘em out and and burn them any more. Bloody bylaws about bonfires I suppose.” We realised that Pop had misheard ‘dead body’ for ‘dead tree’ but Malcolm struggled on, appalled “But.. so many of them? Really?” and Pop said “Dozens! They fall in, upstream. Or some bugger tips them in. Always bumping up against the hull.” There was a silent second, or maybe two before Malcolm gathered his breath again “My God, that’s terrible!” and Pop, by now gathering that something was a bit askew with his old friend, said soothingly “It’s not a big deal, Malc. I just get the boat hook and shove ‘em off. Send them on their way to the sea. Best thing.” By now we were on deck to explain the dead body versus dead tree thing, Pop was a bit miffed “You want to speak clearer, Malc. That’s the trouble with people these days. Always mumbling.”
Yes, I loved Pop.
In the way that only young people do, Rob and I fell into marriage. I left my nurse training (Why? Why? I ask my younger self) and we blew all my savings and forty pounds from my dad, plus a boat loan, on a ropey old, damp old, mouldering old, converted old police launch. (Why? Why? Why? I ask my younger self). Her name was The Miss Behave. Suitably rakish. This was to be our adventure. We were going to refurbish her, turn her into the sleek varnished head-turner that she once was. We couldn’t afford the moorings on the Thames and so we motored down to the Medway and found a farmer who would let us moor up on the edge of a cow meadow. Rob’s dream was to be a fireman and everything was falling into place, almost effortlessly, when he was accepted on a training course to start in a few months but with no other income and that loan to pay off I found a job in a paper factory, in the offices. And there we were, less than a year after we’d met, blundering along from pay day to pay day, unsure of everything, lost babes in the wood. We had few posessions but we didn’t need many, we had our dogs and our cat, a portable record player, a tiny black and white TV that worked when the wind was in the right direction, and Rob had his Army souvenirs, his Para beret. That’s all we needed.
We did make some improvements, that first Summer on the river, with long warm days spent on the deck, sanding and caulking and varnishing the teak planks until the whole deck glowed a deep rich chestnut. We were so proud of that deck. Other boat owners would pause to admire it, and Rob’s chest would swell with pride as he told them about the engine overhaul we were going to do, the dry dock we were going to enter, the keel work that was planned for the next year. And while we spoke of the next phase in our grand plans, the rest of the boat silently continued to crumble and rot.
The next Spring, after a winter of rain and wind and leaks, we sold up and moved out to a Fire Brigade house. Rob was sad. Me? Not so much.