Authors: Stephen Gallagher
THE BOAT HOUSE
© Stephen Gallagher 1991
First published in Great Britain in 1991 by The New English Library
This edition 2011 from the Brooligan Press
After the Drowning (1)
Old and young, we are all on our last cruise.
Robert Louis Stevenson
He hadn't been out to McCarthy's old place on the Step in almost a year. It held too many memories for him, and not only recent ones; the bad and the good were all thrown in together, and sometimes it seemed as if the good could be almost as painful. He'd think of childhood summers, spent in that same shaky wooden cottage with his sister and her family after their parents had died, and of the three years with Nerys when they'd just been married, both of them too poor to afford anywhere better as they saved for a stake in the boatyard. Now the boatyard was all his, had been since before Wayne had learned to walk, but Nerys was long gone.
Those had been hard times, but happy ones. He only wished that he could have realised it then.
"Shape up, Ted," he told himself. "Don't get morbid." And he tried not to crash the van's worn second gear as he made the turn onto the leaf strewn headland track.
If only that last, terrible summer could be wiped away. Not just burned out of his mind with a controlled dose of lightning, but actually wiped away as if it was a poem on a blackboard that had somehow turned wrong, and the rhythm picked up again as if nothing bad had ever happened. What would he give? The answer to that one was anything, right down to his soul. Anything, just to have it all back the way it had been. The memories, he'd keep. As memories alone they wouldn't be able to hurt him then but, by God, how they'd make him appreciate what he'd had.
So much for not getting morbid.
The track was fairly rough, and had begun to get overgrown. The van bounced where old ruts had dried in, and in some places low branches slashed at the windshield. As a child, he'd always loved the Step best of anywhere in the valley. It was a high, wooded headland jutting out into the lake, a steep climb to its summit from the shore and a tortuous drive from the road; easier access would have made it less private and less privacy might have taken away some of the magic, and the magic was what had made it so special. He'd played here, he'd grown here; and the last time he'd been here, he'd sat on the high rocks overlooking the water and he'd wept in solitude and without shame.
He didn't need to wonder what the view from the top would be like today. It would be of the valley and, whether the sun shone or the clouds cast a shadow across it or the rain came down, it was the homeland that would never let him go.
The track was coming to an end. The old place - lately McCarthy's place, although Pete McCarthy had moved out almost a year ago - lay just ahead.
Springtime was okay, although most of the valley people seemed to think that the autumn was the best time of year around these parts. Then the sunsets were like red gold in the mountains, and the woodland stood as dark and shady as anything out of a fairytale. Strangers had been known to spend an hour or more out on the terrace behind the Venetz sisters' restaurant, watching the evening mists rise from the lake with tears in their eyes.
The valley people, meanwhile, were probably all indoors with their Casio calculators, checking the high season's rakeoff from the visitors and wondering if this was going to be the year that they could afford a new Volvo or even a winter cruise. They'd worked flat-out through the summer, sometimes so hard that they'd forget to raise their heads and remind themselves of the real reason for living here. It wasn't the money, or the uncertain pleasure of servicing the tourist trade; it was just the valley, a subtle presence which seemed to get into people and which never let them go.
Ted Hammond knew that he could never leave. It was too late to stop the dance; the valley had held him close for too long. Friends might come and go, but he'd always be the one to stay behind.
He pulled in before the old house, onto the strip of rough ground before the covered wooden porch. A few yards ahead, the overgrown track petered out and became an even more overgrown footpath. The house stood in the silence of desertion. Neither the track nor the path had any destination other than this.
It had been given a name, once,
, but the board had weathered away and the name had been mostly forgotten. It was a one-storey frame building, too run-down to sell or even to rent; the walls and the roof were sound, but it would need a lot of paint and timberwork as well as some new windows before it could charm the holiday crowd.
That was his sister's plan, anyway, and she was still the owner even though she let Ted look after the key and the box with all the paperwork. And it was the only reason for his coming up here today, because she'd asked him to sweep out the gutters and fix the blocked stove and generally check the place over before she advertised it. Ted's feeling was that he'd rather see it left to fade away. It already had the air of some forgotten corner in a churchyard, with the roses long dead and the side garden turned to moss and the trees crowding in too close. A gingerbread house, gone stale and old. Better to let the valley take it back.
, the thought made its presence known in the back of his mind,
keep it as it is until McCarthy returns
He stepped out of the van, and looked across the porch to the locked front door. He could almost see it standing open, Pete McCarthy coming down the unlit hallway and into the light, carrying an old Heinz Soup box that was crammed with his shirts and had a radio balanced on top. Not the best mechanic that Ted had ever employed, but easily the best to work with. He always forgot the punchlines to jokes and his whistling was a public embarrassment, but Ted had known even then that he was going to miss him.
And he had. He'd missed the two of them, a lot.
That had been the reason why he'd come out here last; to say goodbye. Their car had already been loaded and the boy sat playing behind the wheel as the three of them stood out on the porch and talked around everything other than what really needed to be said. They were putting off the moment, and they knew it; much better if they all just shook hands, and then they got into their car and went.
Diane had said simply, and she'd stepped up to him and hugged him hard. Ted had put his arms around her, and it had come to him in a sudden realisation that Diane was about the same age that Nerys had been when she died, the age that she'd be in his memory forever. There hadn't been a week of his life since that he hadn't wished for her back at least once; and now, for a moment that had already passed as the realisation had emerged, it seemed that wishes could come true.
He'd hugged her back, and she'd become Diane again; a different scent, a different presence, a different life ahead of her. No less dear, but not the young woman who had quietly slipped away from him on that November night. There had been tears in Diane's eyes as she'd finally let go and taken a step back.
Then Pete had stretched out his hand.
he'd said seriously.
I'm sorry for what I brought you.
It wasn't your fault,
Ted had told him.
You couldn't know.
But Pete, being Pete, was probably blaming himself still.
As he unlocked the main door, Ted was wondering where they were, how they were doing. He'd had a couple of postcards in the early months, but nothing since. They'd checked out the south coast where Pete had been offered boatyard work but they couldn't find anywhere cheap enough to rent, and then they'd headed over to the east somewhere. Opening the door, he found himself overtaken by a certainty that, in spite of everything that had happened here, they would come back; the worst of the memories finally buried, perhaps, and that under-the-skin presence of the valley drawing them home.
Let his sister think that he was getting the house ready for rent. He'd get it ready, all right, but he'd tell her that the roof needed work, that some of the boards were too rotten to be safe. He'd say that he'd fix it when he could, maybe have it ready in time for next year.
And in the meantime, if Pete and Diane should return, the old place would be waiting.
A cool, musty smell hit him as he stepped inside. There was a stillness in the air that made any sound seem hollow and intrusive; the atmosphere was as empty as at four o'clock in the morning, here in the middle of this Spring afternoon. He felt as if he were standing in a doll's house. Doorways along the hall before him; a couple of bedrooms and a sitting room, a bathroom with an old castiron tub, the big kitchen at the back with the woodburning stove that didn't work and the electric ring that did. All of the doors leading off the hallway had been left open, except for one.
The door that had led to Alina's room.
He might as well start there, since he couldn't skip it; putting it off would only give his imagination the chance to get to work in a department that already had too much going on inside. Even so, he felt a strange kind of anticipation as he started to turn the doorknob. Would Pete and Diane have cleared everything out before they left? They must have. Surely one of them would have said something if they hadn't.
He opened the door, and stepped through.
With some relief, he saw that the room was bare. The bed had been stripped to the mattress and there was nothing on the walls, nothing on the dresser. He checked the drawers and they were empty, too. It was as if she'd never been here.
Which left another question, occurring to him as he gave a couple of tugs at the sash of the window which looked out onto the overgrown sidegarden. What had they done with Alina's stuff? He couldn't imagine either of them wanting to take it away.
He found the answer a short time later, when he came to work on the woodburning stove in the kitchen.
It was dimmer in here than in any other room in the cottage, because the trees around the back had been left to get so wild that their branches scratched against the windows in anything more than the mildest breeze. Some other time, he'd bring along a chainsaw and trim them back. Right now, the job was to clear out the stove.
But when he opened everything up to take a look, he found that it had already been done.
The flue had apparently been unblocked some time ago, and the stove had then been used. Pete had said nothing about it but there was the evidence, there in the cold ashes. Ted unhooked the iron poker from its nail on the wall alongside and gave them a stir around.
Whatever had been burned, it hadn't burned completely. He turned up hairpins, part of a melted comb. A piece of fabric with some of the pattern still discernible. And paper ash, lots of it. In amongst the ash there was the corner of a postcard or a photo. He tilted it to the light with the tip of the poker, but it showed no recognisable detail.
He raked the cold embers together in a mound and then, using deadwood that he found within a few yards of the house, he relit the stove and clamped everything down tight. This way it would burn hot, and it would burn until only the ashes of ashes remained. For Ted Hammond, even one surviving scrap of Alina Peterson would be one scrap too many.
He waited until he was sure. Then he turned to go.
Leaving the cottage and locking the door behind him, Ted found himself thinking of something that Diane had once said. That of those who'd known the truth, they were the only ones who had made it through. She hadn't exactly put it like that, but it was what she'd meant; that they were a survivors' club, whether they liked the idea or not.
He went down the porch steps to the van, climbed in, and started the engine. And then he sat for a few moments, letting it idle as he found himself looking at the faint line of the path that picked up from the track only a few yards ahead. It led on up through the woodland to the high rocks where he'd gone to look down on the flat expanse of the lake after the goodbyes.