Boy on the Towpath
by Andrew Foote
Maggi swung up the driveway and pulled up some fifty yards from the marque and stepped out to open the door for us.
"I need a word with you Maggi? How the fuck did you manage to contact so many of my old mates?"
"Later Stu! Go and grab a drink before the hordes arrive! Oh and by the way, white wine for me as I'm on a diet and the keys to your boat `cos that's where I'll lay my head tonight as doubtless I'll get pissed and won't be in any fit state to drive! Tom and Steve are staying here at the vicarage and a hotel room is booked and paid for in Warwick for you two. Now both of you, bugger off and get a damned drink!"
"My God Jan, you look so beautiful and dare I say it, well!"
We were sitting down with our drinks waiting for the guests to arrive. A precious few moments to ourselves and a time to talk.
"Bless you Stu. Hey! My husband! It's still not sunk in fully! Anyway my consultant hit me up with something that will keep me feeling good until……..well, for the time being at least and yes! I feel great! Tom looked happy and didn't he do well?!"
"His mothers' son! He's such a fantastic kid Jan and so very receptive and considerate to boot. They seriously broke the mould when he came into this world."
"For the last time, please take care of him for me?"
"You don't have to even question that. You know I will. I'll do everything in my power to make sure he's happy and well adjusted. Even before……..you know……..I found out, I always wanted to help him in any way I could so now more than ever he will be my prime concern."
Jan hugged me and I loved it!
"Mr and Mrs Mailing? Your guests are arriving?"
The introductions seemed to last a lifetime! I knew few of Jan's friends and she knew nothing of mine. Sometimes I was struggling to put names to faces of people I'd met but after an anecdote or two I could fit them in to my past wanderings on the canals.
Finally we sat down to the wedding feast – so good to hear the laughter and banter between our guests but for me, there was one person missing. My brother.
I'd come out many years before and I thought that he would be with me even though I knew that he didn't approve but no. He never maintained contact except the obligatory Christmas card and that was normally signed by his wife. Today I really wanted him to be here.
The formalities done and time to circulate. I'd not pressured Tom into a best man speech, not because he couldn't, more I didn't want him to let off with personal things!
It was nice to catch up with folk. Sometimes a touch of sadness of memories past but mostly with a sense of community spirit for what was still out there on the cut. Those folk who still lived the nomadic life that I'd perused for many years before becoming marina based, were a joy to be reunited with and that coupled with the fact that they had all made their way to this ceremony, I was left feeling very humbled.
Tom spent most of his time with Paul and understandably so. I spent some time with his teachers but they left after saying their goodbyes but it was just after they left and with Jan chatting to one of her friends, that one of the waiters touched my arm.
"Mr Mailing? There's a gentleman to see you."
"I understand he's your brother."
I made my apologies and hurried off to the entrance. Yep it was Ross alright! He looked at me and smiled!
"I'm sorry Stu. I've been an arsehole keeping you at arm's length all these years. Can you find a way to forgive me?"
"Oh Ross? You had your reasons and I'm not one to hold grudges. Nothing to forgive!"
We hugged each other in an emotional embrace for a couple of moments before
I broke away.
"I've got some Guinness in especially for you! Come on and meet my lovely wife and son!"
I introduced him to both Jan and Tom and left them chatting whilst I went to get him a drink. When I returned, Ross was deep in conversation with Jan, Tom having gone back to be with Paul. I left them to it and went to find David.
"Who the bloody hell is paying for all of this Dave?"
"Ahh! Well you see, it's like this. Maggi and I did our detective thing and as your wedding present from everyone, they all chipped in twenty-five quid! That covered this lot plus your hotel suit for tonight so you see no-one is out of pocket and everyone is having a wonderful time. How about you and Jan? Everything okay?"
"Yes we're fine and it's been fantastic. Even my brother has turned up and I've not seen him in years!"
"God works in mysterious ways my old friend! Now go back to Jan and be with her. This is your day remember? Just one thing on a more serious note. I'm here for you all twenty four seven. If you need me then lift the bloody phone and, if I find out that you…….."
"I understand Dave. And I thank you."
I re-joined Jan and Ross and offered him another drink which he refused.
"I'd love to stop but I've a meeting in London tomorrow and with David only managing to track me down two days ago, I didn't have time enough to cancel it. Jan has given me your phone number and email address and I'll be in touch soon I promise. Will you come out and see me to my car Stu? There's something else I'd like to tell you before I go."
We walked out to where his car was parked not exchanging a word. Ross looked to be deep in thought but as we reached the car park, he stopped and embraced me again.
"I need your forgiveness Stu. Jan told me just about everything that's gone on since you and young Tom met and I've seriously misjudged you and I'm truly sorry!"
"There's nothing to forgive Ross. I'm so very pleased you came today even for just an hour or so and you've made today even more special than I dared to hope for. Forgiveness? If you really feel you need it then it's freely given and right from my heart."
"You have done a wonderful thing today and if I dare to say, something I don't think many people could or indeed would have done. In light of the circumstances, a wedding present seemed well, inappropriate somehow but I want to do this."
He fished around in his briefcase for a moment then handed me an envelope.
"There's a cheque in here. When the inevitable happens I want you to use it as you see fit. A headstone, a donation to charity or whatever. Your decision. I'm so sorry to be practical but I can't think how else to put it."
"Thanks. I will and I'll tell you how I used it mate."
I waved him off and walking back I noticed some others walking out to leave. I quickened my pace and re-joined Janet.
"I'm flagging here Stu? I need to rest and take my medication."
"Do you want to go inside to the vicarage? I'm positive Dave won't mind?"
"No. Can we go to the hotel please?"
I found Maggi deep in conversation with Dave and his wife Charlotte.
"Maggs? Any chance of a ride to the hotel? I mean if you're okay to drive, that is?"
"I'm just dandy! The Right Rev and Charlie are coming over to the hotel later for a couple after everyone has disappeared. Oh maybe I didn't say but I'm staying there as well tonight so you can have your boat keys back and we just thought we'd put the world to rights over a cognac or five so let's get going!"
Jan sat on the bed and removed her shoes.
"I'm really tired! What a wonderful day! So many people and your friends. So nice! I never knew what a tight community you all are."
"It's a very special life-style Jan. Tom will be part of it as of now. People will know him and look out for him to a degree you will never find on terra-firma. You know the sort of thing. Tell five people and each of them tells five others and so-on. By the end of the week everyone will recognise `Movin' Home'' and will know who's on board!"
"Good to know! Be a sweetheart and run me a bath please?"
About an hour later, Jan emerged from the dressing room looking as if she was going to the Oscar dinner! Stunning doesn't come close!
"Come on husband of mine? Take me down to the bar!"
We made our way arm in arm down to reception to find a whole crowd of people, drinks in hand waiting for us. I whispered to Jan "You knew about this, didn't you!"
"I don't know what you're talking about!! Me??? Little me??! Yes I knew silly! All part of my master plan or rather all part of David's. I told him I'd text him once I'd taken my tablets and tell him how I was feeling. The rest was up to him!"
What an evening! OMG!! How I stayed sober I will never know and as for
Jan, she was radiant to the point that made me look like a party-pooper.
My life! I've never seen, with the possible exception of Maggi, any woman who could handle drink like Jan did that night! It had to be gone 2am when we finally made it back to our room, tired but very happy.
An hour later we lay in each other's arms basking in the after-glow of incredible sex, the best with a girl I could remember. I listened as Jan's breathing became lighter as she drifted off to sleep leaving me to ponder the future and the enormity of the responsibility I had taken on, not that I had any regrets but I was concerned that bringing up a soon-to-be adolescent boy might not be as easier a task as I'd first thought. One thing was certain there was no going back now. I had a wife and son to look after and protect. The solicitors assured us both that I was legally Tom's stepfather and would remain so for life as there wasn't a court in the land that could change that.
With these thoughts buzzing around in my head, I finally drifted off to sleep.
Over the next couple of weeks, Jan's condition declined at an alarming rate. I'd had heated exchanges with her consultant arguing that there must be something he could do to give her some quality of life but to no avail. Pain relief was all he could offer and suggested that she would be better off in a hospice so twenty-four nursing and monitoring could be provided. Reluctantly I agreed and so three weeks to the day since we married, Jan was admitted into St Richards where she was placed on a morphine drip to stave away the pain.
It was so very hard to watch her as she drifted in and out of consciousness knowing that nothing more could be done, both for me and especially for Tom. He was a saint. Sure many tears were shed but he managed to retain composure during his constant visits which I have to admit was more than I could manage. Then the call.
"Mr Mailing? This is Mary from St Richards. I'm sorry to tell you that your wife has only hours left to her and so if you…….."
"We're on our way."
Tom one side of her bed and me the other, we held her hands but without any perceptible reaction from Jan but then suddenly she opened her eyes, smiled and squeezed our hands and she was gone, leaving us with only the continuous pitch of the heart monitor.
Tom went ballistic and threw himself on top of her lifeless body. "No! No don't go!! PLEEEASE COME BACK!!"
A nurse entered the room and tried to coax Tom away but I intervened.
"Leave him be damn it! Let him get his grief out for Christ's sake!"
Suitably chastened the nurse left the room telling me to ring the bell once we were ready to leave and Tom had calmed down. After some minutes I managed to persuade Tom to settle down. "Mum's in heaven now Tom. What you see is only the shell that her spirit used to live in on this earth, nothing more. Do you understand?"
A nod of his head and he cuddled into me as his tears abated and half an hour later I got up, kissed Jan on the forehead, pulled the sheet over her head and hand in hand we left the room.
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