Boy on the Towpath
by Andrew Foote
Although stone cold sober I figured that I was in no fit state to drive so we walked slowly back to the boat. Tom didn't question why we hadn't gone to the house but my thinking was it would've been too difficult for both of us given the circumstances to return there just at that time. We walked hand in hand in silence until we reached the gates of the marina and as I was fumbling for my keys Tom pointed to the pub directly across the road.
"Stu I'm starving. Can we go and eat something over there tonight?"
"Yes of course we can. Do you want to go over now?"
"Please. My tummy is squishing about like crazy!"
Did I detect a hint of a grin? I bloody hoped so.
We selected a booth table for two, right in a corner so we could be afforded some privacy and once seated a young waitress came to take our drinks order.
"A bottle of number 24 please, two glasses and a litre of chilled mineral water."
"But sir the young man doesn't look old enough to drink alcohol?"
"You should be commended for questioning that but he's my son and he's well old enough. If there's still a problem then ask the manager to speak with me."
"No that's fine sir. I had to ask you understand."
"You're good at your job and I hope they appreciate you!"
Once she had left Tom did grin at me!
"You told a fib!"
"No I didn't! I merely told her you were old enough not how old you were, dummy! Booze isn't the answer but just this once it just might help you to get a good night's rest especially after a decent meal. I love you Tom?"
"I know it and I love you too, DAD!"
That had both of us giggling and on reflection it was amazing that not an hour earlier we had been in the depths of despair unable to look forward as if blinded by grief. Okay David! Maybe God does work in mysterious ways!
The drinks arrived and as I poured them out I told Tom I wanted to slip out and make a phone call.
"Dave? It's Stu. I'm sorry to tell you that Jan lost the fight this afternoon……..at half past four…….. Yes Tom's coping well, obviously very upset at the time and yes, we were at her bedside."
"That about tells me the answers to everything I was going to ask. Where are you now?"
"We were walking back to the boat but Tom was hungry so we're in the `Bell' across from the marina getting a bite to eat."
"Good. A sense of normality for him. I will contact everyone and let them know the sad news so don't go bothering yourself. We'll talk about a service another time but it's important that you speak to the solicitors ASAP and get all the legal farting about sorted out. I'm here for both of you. Don't ever forget that! May God bless you both!"
I returned to our table to see a very expectant Tom.
"Can I have a filet steak please?"
"Bloody-hell! Wine and now a filet steak? Oh fuck it why not! I'll join you!"
The food was excellent and Tom seemed relaxed polishing off a dessert coarse – something I couldn't manage and with the bill paid, we walked back to the boat.
Maybe it was the emotions of the day as it wasn't exactly cold but the boat felt damp and miserable inside. I lit the stove and fired up the central heating for hot water and in a matter of a few minutes we were warm. Tom watched TV for a while but I could see him yawning from time to time so I suggested he headed for bed.
"Why don't you go and take a shower and hit the sack for a bit. I've some stuff I need to do for a while but I'm not going to be late myself, okay?"
"Mmm. Okay but Stu?"
I actually didn't have anything to do except gather my own thoughts but it was easier for me to do that without any form of interruption. So much to sort out and deal with and in truth it would be easier to tackle without an emotionally fragile young boy by my side but I'd taken on the responsibility and so the problem was mine and no way was I going to shy away from it. I was just about to call it a day when the phone rang.
"Stu it's Maggi. I'm so very sorry to hear the news. Right Rev called me and asked me to put the word around the cut for him but there's just one thing else. I can only but imagine you've a lot to organise and some of it not for the ears of young Tom so if you want, I'll take him off your hands for a day to give you the chance to sort things out and if you need more time then I'll bring him back and collect him the next time you need the space. What do you say."
"Thanks so much Meggs and I can't say I couldn't use the space. He's crashed out for tonight so I'll put it to him in the morning if that's okay."
"Good stuff. By the way. The bush telegraph is working as normal. There are so many messages for you but I'll keep them until we see each other another time."
"Where are you moored Meggs?"
"I've just hit the North Oxford so I'm a couple of days away from you but if I pull my finger out, maybe late tomorrow evening if you want."
"No don't panic. It'll take a few days to sort appointments and such anyway. Tom is still fragile so it's best he's with me for a while so just take it easy, hey!?"
"Talk to the harbour master so as I can tie off alongside you. Better than walking distances! Give him my love Stu, - that is if he remembers me.
Sleep well. I'm thinking of you."
I slipped under the shower briefly and headed to bed, my mind still on other things and it was only once I slid between the sheets that I realised I was naked. I carefully got back out and at least put on a pair of boxers when my little man stirred. Fortunately he didn't fully wake up, he just turned over towards me and cuddled up. Then and only then did I realise he too was naked and the old dilemma's raced around in my head. I decided that now was not the time to insist that he put at least something on, anyway it felt good holding him like this and as neither of us were aroused in any way, where was the harm?
I put one arm under his neck and my free hand on his firm little bubble-butt and pulled him into me before slowly drifting off to sleep and a chance to put the harrowing events of the day to one side if only for a few hours.
We had moved around during the night as I was laying on my left side and
Tom had spooned up to me and I could feel his piss-hard up against my arse crack. Yeah okay it felt good and my dick promptly followed suit but fortunately for both of us, Tom's light snoring told me he was still well asleep! I slipped out of bed and headed for the shower and a chance to whack off and cool my ardour.
I had just brewed myself a mug of tea when I heard Tom scurry into the shower room and take a leak. I positioned myself just out of sight and as he emerged I playfully swatted him on the bum.
"My little naked boy huh?"
Tom blushed furiously. "I'm sorry but last night I tried to ask you if I could but thought you'd say no. Are you angry with me?"
I dropped to my knees and pulled him towards me, my head on his chest.
"No I'm not angry with you. Do you know why?"
"Because I think you needed it."
"Aww. I missed all the fun!"
"There was no `fun' as you put it but you did feel good. It was like we couldn't get any closer if we tried. It was very special Tom."
"Can we do it again Stu? Please?"
"I will think about it okay? I'm not going to promise anything but I will give it thought. Now go and get dressed as the tea is getting cold."
Tom came back a few moments later dressed only in a pair of shorts and a sleeveless tee shirt and sat down at the table while I cooked breakfast and as we did a joint operation on the washing up I decided the time was right to tackle some of the problem decisions we both had to make.
"I want you to think about a couple of things Tom. The first is this. Do you want to continue to live at your house or would you prefer to live elsewhere?"
"I don't want to go back there Stu. I can't explain why."
"I can guess though. That's fine."
"Can we stay and live here on the boat?"
"Yes sure we can if that's what you want and actually I was rather hoping you'd say that but it'll mean you'll have to downsize a little, I mean there's not enough room for all your stuff on board."
"That's okay but I don't want to go back to sort it all out."
"Tell you what. Do you remember Maggi from the wedding?"
"The hippy lady with the cool old car?"
"Yep, that's her! Now she's on her way to us with her boat and should be here tomorrow some time so what I suggest is that you stay here with her for a few hours and I'll go to the house and put all of your things into the back of my truck and bring them back here for you to go through. Anything you don't want to keep, we'll give to a children's hospice. What do you think?"
"That's a good idea. Thanks! What's Maggi's boat like?"
"Old like her car! You'll like it. It's very traditional."
"Also there are things I have to do today which you might not want to do with me so if you're happy enough, I suggest you stay on the boat by yourself for a couple of hours and when I get back, we'll go and do some food shopping."
"I'll be okay here. Can I use your laptop?"
"Sure. No porn sites though!"
"Aww? Spoil sport! Only joking!"
My first stop was the hospice to collect the death certificate then onwards to the solicitor's office.
I was told that as both Tom and I were beneficiaries of Jan's estate we would both have to be there for the reading and I thought about delaying it but on reflection decided that it was maybe better to get all the unpleasant things out of the way as soon as possible so both Tom and I could truly move forward. I agreed a time of nine the following morning.
Next was the funeral directors. I knew of Jan's wishes for a cremation and just a simple church service so that was easy enough done. I told the funeral people to hook up with David and arrange a date as early as practically possible and let me know the outcome.
I collected Tom and we went off to restock the boat. He was strangely animated for a young lad who not twenty-four earlier had watched his mother die but I wasn't going to question it. Also it isn't usual for a thirteen year-old to want to constantly hold hands with an adult no matter what the relationship. I didn't care! It gave me a nice warm feeling inside just to be that close to him as I was very conscious of his soft warm hand in mine that sent goose bumps up my spine. The only time a touch of sadness crept in was as we passed the cosmetics counter.
"What are you going to do with all of mum's things?"
"I thought we would do the same thing as you plan on doing with the stuff you don't want. It will be good to know that it will be helping others and also I think that mum would approve don't you?"
"Yes she would. Sad though isn't it."
"Come on mate. Let's not go there please?"
"I know. It is though."
Walking back to the truck we passed by one of those Pound shops and Tom slowed down and was eying some plastic footballs in a large sack like container by the door.
"Fancy a game of footie then?"
"Oh yeah! Can we?"
"Why not. Here you go, get in there and buy one."
Tom emerged carrying a blue and white football and strung around his neck, an Arsenal team medallion.
"Hey! Where did that come from? I only gave you a quid?"
"The store manager said I was nice and polite and gave it to me for nothing! Cool or what!"
"Shit! I'll have to take you to my bank next time I need a favour but anyway you should have got a red and white ball if you support Arsenal?"
"I don't support them, I follow Coventry and they're the sky blues. I didn't have the nerve to ask him for a different badge."
Jan was right. I wondered how many other kids his age would have accepted something like that without stating a preference as to the team. Yes I was very impressed with him but he wouldn't be with me when we came to have a kick about later! Two left feet and one of them disconnected from my brain would be my downfall for sure!
Once back we packed away all the shopping and Tom headed out onto the quay with the football.
"Come on Stu? Hurry up?"
Well --- as expected Tom was lithe and agile where I was out of shape and my life-long ineptitude with games that involved anything that included spherical objects didn't help much either! My swansong was connecting perfectly with the ball and with one enormous kick sent it sailing over a line of boats into the harbour.
Tom was not best impressed!
"Who's going to fish that out then?"
"You are! Your ball, your responsibility!"
"Want to tell me how?"
"You can swim. Can't you?"
"Why don't you go and ask Kenny the harbourmaster if you can use his inflatable then?"
"O-kay. – But what if he says no. Then what?"
"He won't say no to you! Get going for goodness sake boy!"
A mean trick but I'd set Tom up. I wanted Kenny to get to know Tom as he would feature in my life and Kenny would have to get to know him well, coming and going to school with his own pass fob with no raised eyebrows and also he could explain to other boat owners why a lad of his age was on the premises in the first place. I'd also told Kenny of Tom's very natural ability with boats so I was very sure that there wouldn't be a problem, after a few pointers, with Tom using the dingy.
Right on cue, Tom came around from the service dock and retrieved the ball, gave me a quick salute and motored back to tie off.
A stupid little event given the greater scheme of things but it was another notch on his belt and, if I needed one which I most certainly didn't, another reason to love and be very proud of him!
We continued our game and were joined by another boat owner. A twenty-something guy who was far better than me with his soccer skills so I bowed out with good grace and sat on the bank to watch the two of them having a kick about. Tom was really enjoying himself and I'm ashamed to say I felt a twinge of jealousy that he was enjoying this guy's company as much as he was but these abated when I was joined by a very pretty girl who introduced herself as Anna the wife of Tom's new pal Craig.
"Craig will be in his element right now kicking a ball about with your boy!"
"Oh yes! He's a sports teacher at Rugby School and as the school name suggests, he's more a rugby player than a football man but none the less, to have an eager young boy to kick about with during the holidays will keep him out of my hair and occupied at least that is if you've no objection?"
"God no! How can I object? I'm fairly useless at ball games and Tom has so much energy, no actually I'm pleased."
"What boat is yours?"
"'Movin' Home'. Right over the way there on pier 15. Where's yours?"
"We're almost neighbours! We're on 13, `Play with your Balls' and no it wasn't my choice of a name but it kind of makes sense when you consider Craig's line of work!"
"I like it!! That's the best thing I've heard all day. – No all month! Dare I ask what you do?"
"Ahh. Well I'm a police officer and I work in the child protection unit in Rugby."
"I hope you're not kept too busy?"
"Unfortunately we're stacked out. We have so much work with violent abuse, mostly by the father and normally drink related, just cases of neglect which become criminal neglect and then sexual abuse which seems to be on the increase I'm sorry to say."
"That has to be a dreadful area to work with. I'm not sure if I could deal with that."
"You become accustomed to it, - hardened if you like. The parents that beat their kids are the worst and then comes' the sheer neglect, normally dealt with by social services but we step in when the situation becomes so acute that only criminal action can put an end to it. Those are heart breaking sometimes and more often than not, it's too late. A child dies and then what can we do."
"You mentioned sexual abuse and its increase?"
"Hmm. Yes it is. Generally the partner of a single mother, uncles, - sometimes aunts, grand parents' and the like but not normally the blood parent's although not unknown."
Just at that moment Tom sprang into my lap and hugged me.
"Hey Stu? I've just beaten Craig! Is that massive or what!!"
"Yeah! my boy! He's getting tired! Go and really make him suffer!"
Tom squeezed me and kissed me on the cheek before racing off to continue
"Better watch me then! I'm just his step dad!"
"He's very close to you, that's so obvious and if you were doing anything wrong and I don't necessarily mean inappropriate then it would be so very plain to see. We're very well trained! He really loves you and it shows!"
"I love him to. Anyway. Fancy a glass of something while these sport freaks get it out of their system?"
"Sounds good to me."
After telling Tom where I was going we walked down to my boat and settled in to a glass of wine each.
"So do you live nearby then?"
"Yes, very nearby. Here actually!"
"Three of you live here?"
"No just myself and Tom."
I went on to explain the recent tragic events of Jan's illness and death leaving out how we came to meet and how we came to be married, I didn't think it was relevant but if we got to know them well enough then so be it.
"That's so sad for you both. Tom seems to be coping well enough though."
"He's surprisingly tough for a lad of his age. He tends to think things through before taking any action. Yes I'm very proud of him and how level headed he is."
I went on to tell her of Tom's ability with the boat and how he would listen to instruction, learning quickly and of his concentration.
"Is he in school locally?"
"He's at Headingly High but I'm not a fan of their teaching methods so if I could find somewhere better for him then I'd seriously consider moving him."
"What about home schooling?"
"No way! He needs to be around kids of his own age and as you must be aware there are precious few on the marina to socialise with. No it has to be main stream schooling."
"Have you considered Rugby School?"
I almost choked on my drink at that suggestion!
"No! God knows I'm comfortably off but I don't have enough to afford those fees! Nice thought though!"
"There's always the possibility of a bursary? What about that?"
"I'd never even given it any consideration. How does that work?"
"The school considers his background, his academic ability obviously, recommendations from people of a suitable standing in society and if he is found to be eligible then he could be awarded a half bursary or a full one depending."
"My God. Tom at Rugby School! Too much even to dream about!"
"Not necessarily. I'll get Craig to talk to you about it and in any case there's no harm in trying, is there."
"No you're dead right. No harm whatsoever."
Just then, Tom bounded into the boat closely followed by a very sweaty Craig.
"I need beer! Young Tom here has fairly worn me out! Damn he's one fit young lad!"
"I was just telling Stuart about bursaries darling."
"Well he'd get my vote. With the right training he could be a very fine athlete and what's more he's very bright, very articulate and so much fun to be around. I think he would stand a very fair chance especially as he wouldn't need to board. Would you like me to make enquiries for you Stu?"
"Look I don't want to put you to any trouble but I have to say it would be the chance of a lifetime for him and as I said to Anna, I'm not a fan of the teaching methods they use at his current school so if you really wouldn't mind?"
"It's not a problem, really. I'll get to it tomorrow morning. Now that beer…….."
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