by Andrew Foote
We ate at the pub. Well we had to really being as we were moored right outside but the prices were frightening to the extent I was afraid to order.
"It's okay Alexis. It's me who has to answer to your mother, not you. Order what you like."
I was gentle with him ordering only a main course and a coke but my Dad was made of sterner stuff ordering his meal and a bottle of wine at an outrageous price.
The food was excellent and the service equally so, nothing seemed to be too much trouble, the waiters and waitresses were really on top of their mark but I did feel somewhat outside of my comfort zone but no so my Dad. He was loving it.
At the end of the evening, Dad summoned a waiter and asked for the bill.
"Your bill has already been settled sir. There is nothing to pay."
"By whom may I ask? We have never been here before and I'm fairly certain I don't know anyone here who would do such a thing?"
"The owner sir. The gentleman sitting at the end of the bar. He told me that there is no charge to you and also, would you be kind enough to join him for a drink."
We looked towards the bar and sitting there was our benefactor, the man off the cruiser. He beamed at us, raised his glass and beckoned us to join him.
We walked over to the bar just as one of the waiters came over with two bar stools for us to sit on.
"This is a really nice surprise Doctor and it has given me the opportunity to say thank you to you both for your kindness this afternoon. So what will you have to drink?"
"There really is no need to thank us Mr…….?"
"Oh sorry! How remiss of me! Nason. Ken Nason so please call me Ken."
"Likewise Ken. Please call me Tim. I don't use 'Doctor' except in a professional capacity and this is my son Alexis but as I was saying, there's absolutely no need to thank us. People on the water help each other, it's like an unwritten rule."
"Yes I do understand that but anyway, after my attitude at the lock I can't say I would've blamed you had you just motored straight past me. You didn't and so this is my way of showing my gratitude. Now, a drink?"
"I'll stick with what I understand I think. A glass of Shiraz would be nice."
"And you Alexis?"
"I'll just have an orange juice thanks. I'm too young to even be in here let alone drink alcohol."
"Do you sometimes have an alcoholic drink when you're on your boat?"
"Yes sir. Mum and Dad allow me the occasional glass of wine with supper. They say it is a part of my education to understand and learn about responsible drinking."
"I would agree with that. Too often youngsters go stupid when they first get their hands on liquor. May I ask how old you are?"
"I'll be thirteen next month."
"Well Happy Birthday for next month! The thing is, you are allowed in here for two reasons. First we have a supper licence which means children aged fourteen and over may consume alcohol provided they are in the company of a responsible adult and they are eating. Also we are a hotel and technically you are guests here because you are moored on the hotels pontoon. Legally when you stay in a hotel, it becomes your temporary home so all the usual laws about underage drinking go out of the window.
Now do you really want an orange juice or would you prefer a glass of wine?"
The following morning we cast off and headed back towards Mapledurham. The weather looked distinctly autumnal, heavy grey skies and a gusting south-westerly wind made me hurry along, most likely going faster than the six mile an hour speed restriction but we didn't see any other boats on the move and 'Spook' didn't cause much of a wake and the ominous sky and the prospect of getting rained on was a worse option than getting a bollocking from the Thames Conservancy.
We made it back and were tied off just as the heavens opened. We went aboard 'Casio' where my Mum put the kettle on for a mug of tea.
"So you boys have a good time?"
We went on to tell her about the previous day's events and our free meal.
"Why am I never around when things like that happen? I've always wanted to eat there! You blokes have all the luck!
Oh and by the way Alexis, when there's a break in the rain, there's a letter for you up at the house. I did intend to bring it down with me but I got talking to Lady Eleanor and I completely forgot."
"Who would be writing to me Mum?"
"I've no idea. I didn't see it. Thorneycroft? Justin?"
At the first sign of the rain easing I ran up to the house and grabbed the letter off the hall table. Not Thorneycroft, it wasn't typed but then I noticed the postmark 'Thatcham'. It had to be from Jus!
I stuffed it into the pocket of my waterproofs and made my way back to 'Spook' so I could read in privacy.
As I took the envelope out of my pocket, my hands were visibly trembling. I wanted desperately to open it but what if it was bad news?
I took a deep breath and tore it open.
I hope you're missing me as much as I'm missing you but first I want to apologise from the bottom of my heart for my behaviour towards you last Sunday. I truly hate myself for the way I treated you but I was teetering on the verge of near hysterics and much as I wanted to say something, cuddle you even, I knew that by doing so I'd lose the fight. Please, please find it in yourself to forgive me? I love you so very much. You're the only thing that keeps me from going insane and the very thought of upsetting you is sometimes more than I can take.
Don't ever leave me? Please forgive me Alex!
I've got to lighten up a bit. Things here are much the same as they were last term.
I'm ostracised by most of the boys and I have ended up having a couple of scraps but nothing that serious.
On a positive note, my teachers can't believe how much I've improved academically!
I can only thank your Mum and Dad for that and you can be sure that I will when I see them at the weekend.
Supper bell has just rung so I've got to go now.
See you Friday afternoon.
Please don't hate me? I love you.
Your Jus. XXXX'
I sniffed back the tears, raided my moneybox, '£10 should do it' I thought and despite the rain, I ran back to the house, rounded up the dogs and ran full speed into Caversham village.
I reached the Post Office and set about my task, that of writing a telegram to Jus.
'I WILL NEVER LEAVE U STOP I X U STOP CU 2MRW STOP'
Giving it to the man behind the counter I ferreted around for my money.
"Are you sure this is what you want to send young man?"
"Yes sir and as soon as possible. It's very urgent."
"Very well, it is your money. Is this some kind of code?"
"Well sort of but I'm not a Russian spy or anything."
"Ha-ha! No I don't think Russian spies run around with four dogs! Now do you want this sent fast, very fast or super-duper fast?"
"Will £10 cover super-duper fast?"
"To you lad? £4 / 10 (four pounds and ten shillings.)"
"Super-duper fast then please!"
"Okay then. I will telex it through and if you have time to wait, I'll confirm it has been received by our Thatcham office. They will make up your telegram and a postman on a motor cycle will deliver it probably within the hour.
Now let me just check the address with you. 'Justin Armstrong, Down House School, Buckleberry Common, Nr Thatcham, Newbury, Berkshire'. Correct?"
"Yes sir. Correct."
"Good. Just wait five minutes and I'll let you know Thatcham have received it."
A few minutes later and the postmaster returned telling me that it had been received and most likely it was already on its way.
"Now you cut along back home before you catch your death. It isn't nice out there lad."
"I'm gone and……thanks so much!"
"That's why we're here son. I take it that it was very important?"
"More than you can possibly know sir! Bye."
The following morning the weather hadn't improved but my mood had and I settled into my studies with renewed vigour. Somehow sending the telegram had made me realise that we weren't like 1000 miles apart and I could contact Jus pretty much instantly if I had to and that was a very comforting thought.
We worked through until 2.30pm and then my Dad appeared and suggested we made a move to collect Jus from school.
God, I was like hyper! Excitement doesn't come close!
I sat up front with my Dad for most of the journey but just before we passed through the school gates and the avenue that lead down to the school, Dad thought it better I rode in the back, protocol or something.
Rather than pulling over, I climbed over into the back and once seated Dad raised the privacy partition between us.
We parked up and waited. There were a number of other cars there waiting but no kids but looking at my watch, we were about ten minutes early and boy, did they drag!
Suddenly my Dad got out and opened the door for me.
"He's coming son. Look over there."
Jus saw us and broke into a run and on reaching us, dumped his bag on the ground and hugged me almost breaking my spine.
"Oh Alex?? You can have no idea how much I've missed you! Hold me, please just hold me!"
"Are you sure? I mean out here in full view?"
"Yes damn it! I don't care anymore. This time I'm not going to deny my feelings for you. I was horrible to you but yesterday afternoon when I got your telegram I knew, I knew then that it's for real and I no longer wanted to hide away. If it is that I'm to be bullied and set aside from the others then let it be for the truth and not some stupid little incident that occurred a couple of terms back. I love you. I want nothing else than to be with you!"
"You have no need to be worried on that score. You have me, I'm all yours and nobody else's. Can we please get in out of the rain?"
Once we were in the car, I noticed Jus was sporting a black eye.
"What the hell? How did you come by that? It looks really nasty and painful!"
"Oh that! It isn't as bad as it looks, honestly! I was set about by some boy a year ahead of me and by that I mean age not intelligence.
He's one of those thick rich kids, no brain but lots of money back home and egged on by his so-called mates, had a go at me. He threw a punch which I ducked away from but not quick enough to completely avoid it. Instead of hitting me in the nose or mouth, it landed on my cheekbone but don't worry, I lashed out and while I missed his nuts, my foot caught his kneecap and shattered it. He's out of hospital now but will be in the sanatorium for a few weeks yet."
"Remind me not to go upsetting you then! Your feet turn me on no end but to have one of them connecting harshly with my bits? Nah!!!"
"Never will that happen. The only part of you they will get that close to you are your lips, mouth and tongue and for all the right reasons. I still recon you're weird liking my feet though?"
"Maybe I am but there's nothing about you I don't love, your feet included so when you're back at school, look at your fingernails, your nose, your knees and keep telling yourself 'Alex loves these, he loves all of me.' Just hang on to those thoughts okay?"
Jus flung himself into my arms and kissed me deeply.
"You have no idea how much I needed to hear you say those words. I was so scared last weekend and then the realisation of what I had done or rather, what I hadn't done hit me and I thought maybe I'd lost you. What made things worse, when I telephoned Sunday evening only to be told you'd come home and gone straight back to 'Spook' reinforced my fears. I went back to the dormitory and cried my eyes out."
"If it helps any, we were probably crying at the same time and because of the same things! Did it ever occur to you that I'd thought I'd lost you?"
"I was too riddled with guilt to think properly so the truthful answer is no I didn't but one good thing happened as a result, everybody in my dorm knows about you now."
"And that's good?? "
"Yeah good. I'm not a newbie at boarding, I've been away at school since I was six years old so for them to see someone like me head down in the pillows bawling my eyes out isn't the norm. They asked me, I told them everything."
"They were nice actually. No hateful remarks, maybe some disapproval but they were sympathetic. I don't get any grief from them anymore. I think in a way it struck a chord with some of them so now all I have to do is weather the storm from the others."
The remainder of the trip back to Mapledurham we talked about the events of the last week and in particular our outing on 'Spook'.
"You are lucky. I wish I could've been with you. When do you think you'll be going out again?"
"Impossible to say. Normally this time of year we leave the rivers and head onto the canal system. Less dangerous if there's loads of rain but now with my Mum and Dad being so involved with your Granddad and Grandmother, we'll be staying put. We've got the jetty moorings and if it really does get nasty we can breast 'Casio' and 'Spook' together inside the boathouse."
"I'd not thought about the possibility of floods. Have you ever been stranded?"
"No, not me but Mum and Dad have. They told me that they were caught out by flooding on the River Nene one time. Three weeks of being tied to an anchor buoy, they ran out of coal for the stove, almost ran out of food and had to ration the water. It was so bad even the Environment Agency wouldn't send a tug out to rescue them until the end of that third week."
"At the risk of being disgusting, what did they do about emptying the cassette toilet?"
"Only one thing you can do and that's tip it into the river!"
"Sounds horrible I know but it's all treated with formaldehyde so everything is organically dead and the river was flowing so fast that even the chemicals were dissipated very quickly. Their biggest headache was keeping warm. Dad said they'd never been so cold in their lives, they spent nine parts of the day in bed!"
Jus poked me in the ribs.
"I could do that so long as you were there as well!"
"Mmm! Me too! I don't think we'd get very much sleep though!"
To allow us to spend as much time as possible together, my Mum and Dad suggested that studying was put on hold over the weekend but Jus objected saying that it had become so much a part of our 'togetherness' that he wanted to continue where he'd left off and especially as his performance at school had noticeably improved. I didn't object, after all we would still be together but we did finish at midday sharp.
After an early supper we walked the dogs down to Caversham Lock and along through Kings Meadow until the path petered out at which point we turned and retraced our steps.
Walking through a small cluster of Willows, Jus stopped and picked up two bits of fallen twig each about a yard long.
"What do you want them for?"
"You'll see! This is going to be fun! I'll show you once we're back on the boat."
We kennelled the dogs and made our way down to 'Spook' and once on board Jus asked for some string.
"Have you ever seen Lacrosse played Alex?"
"No but I know what it is and sort of how it's played. Why?"
"'Cos I'm going to make two miniature Lacrosse sticks, that's why!"
He bent the thinner end of each of the twigs and bound the ends back onto the stem then set about making a lattice of strings within the loop he had formed.
"There you go! Two miniature Lacrosse sticks!"
"Very good but……...what do you intend doing with them?"
"The dogs', shit-for-brains! You can launch a ball higher, faster and further with those than ever you could by merely throwing it. The dogs will love the exercise and we will have to do next to no work in the process!"
Jus giggled, "Yes I know! Seriously though, I was watching our girls' team playing the other afternoon and I noticed that while most of them are fairly petite, they could launch that ball further than I could throw it so I got to thinking. If they can manage to do that with a Lacrosse ball, it must therefore be possible to do much the same with a tennis ball or one of those solid rubber ones we use to play with the dogs.
I mean this is only a lash-up but it might prove the point."
"We must give them a try-out in the garden tomorrow then."
"How about we try them out at Balmore Park? More open space and if they work I'll try to think of a way to improve on them."
That night we had a fish and chip supper up at the house.
In those days, fish was the dish on a Friday evening, some sort of tradition handed down by the Catholic Church and whilst we were agnostic, it was a nice tradition, a bit like Christmas so we followed it.
Sir George and Lady Eleanor were on top form, the conversation flowing like good wine and the wine flowing like good conversation.
Jus and I volunteered to do the washing up leaving the adults to get quietly pissed and once done we said our good-nights and walked hand in hand back to 'Spook'.
I hadn't noticed it before but Jus was carrying a parcel, something he hadn't taken up to the house with him.
We got on board and once inside and the doors closed Jus unwrapped the bag to reveal a bottle of Port.
"Do you remember that night when Granddad surprised us when we were out on 'Casio's' well deck? You offered him a drink and he almost demolished a bottle of Port? This is his way of payback!"
"But that was my Dad's bottle. He should have it, not me?"
"Ah but Granddad has unearthed a very old bottle of Madera and unless I miss my guess, Tim and Kaz will be sleeping up at the house tonight!! This is for us or rather primarily, for you."
"Oh wow! Shall we?"
"Why not! It's so good to be home Alex. So good to be home."
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