Nathan rings the bell, he doesn’t like to use his key. His dad opens the door and Nathan goes to hug him, but it’s too late and his dad’s already kicking shoes and unopened post away from the doorway so that he can get in. The house smells musty, Nathan thinks, it lost its clean smell of home long ago, when he was a boy, when they moved out.
‘She’s ok, I saw her yesterday,’ Nathan says. ‘She’s off on holiday today, with Sally-Anne.’
‘Where to?’ his dad frowns, his bushy eyebrows seeming to squash his features down towards his stubble which is not quite a beard and extends down the neck of his shirt.
‘Oh, I dunno. Majorca I think,’ Nathan says, wishing he hadn’t brought it up.
The lounge curtains are closed and Nathan can see the boat through the gap between them.
‘Want a cuppa? F’raid it will have to be black.’
‘Yeah, great, thanks.’
His dad goes to the kitchen and Nathan pulls the curtains open. The boat takes up the whole of the small back lawn and looks marooned, perched up on its trailer. The bow’s angled as if it’s about to plough through the living room window and the stern’s jammed into the corner of the garden, between the Jones’s fence and the back hedge.
‘How’s the boat?’
‘Coming along,’ his dad calls from the kitchen.
Nathan can see that the hull has recently had a new coat of paint, sea-blue. It
looks finished to him, the same way it’s looked for the last fifteen years.
‘Can I have a look?’
‘Well, I’m in the middle of…’ his dad starts, but Nathan’s already walked past him towards the back door. The key’s in the lock and he turns it. He glances back and sees his dad has the same expression he always wore before he went out to work on his boat. Hunted.
Nathan climbs onto the wooden stepladder beside the boat and swings his legs over the side of the hull, knowing how much his dad will hate him being up here. He feels he’s crossed a line, as though he’s walked up to his dad and punched him. The deck is varnished to a slippery shine and he walks to the stern and looks over the hedge at the field leading down to the river. When they lived here his dad had cut a hole in the hedge so that Nathan and his friends could scramble through and run down to the water. His mum had insisted that it was closed up with wire once Sally-Anne was crawling, it had been one of the conditions of their weekend access visits. Nathan ducks into the cabin and sits down on the bench. There’s a sleeping bag rolled up underneath and he thinks of the times when his dad slept out here, often after a row and sometimes just because he didn’t come in at the end of the day. His dad’s cool box is there and Nathan opens the lid, it’s filled with bottles of Skol and ice packs. Before he got the cool box his dad used to carry a six-pack of beers out with him, swinging it by the plastic rings. Nathan remembers his Mum yelling after him, ‘Boozer! Alki! What about us?’ It had been better once he kept his beer outside.
‘Here’s your tea,’ his dad calls from the patio, the only part of the tiny garden they’d been able to play in. He’s holding the mugs out as though he’s trying to tempt a cat down from a tree. From his vantage point on the deck, Nathan notices the beginnings of a bald patch beneath his dad’s steel grey hair.
‘Thanks,’ Nathan says. He runs his shoe along the smooth oak planks of the deck and thinks about the plan he had made to carry them from their stack in the garage and shove them through the back hedge. His mum had caught him dragging the first plank and the look of horror on her face had made him stagger back to the garage with it. He remembers lying in bed, listening to the thump of his dad’s hammer, feeling that each plank nailed to the boat brought the possibility of him going away closer. It had taken him by surprise when Mum had told him it was the three of them who would be leaving Dad.
Nathan hears the clomp of his dad’s boots on the stepladder.
‘Nice to have you up here looking around the old girl.’
Nathan wonders if the boat has a name. She used to be called Jane, after Mum, but his dad took the name-plate off just before they left him. Nathan remembers his dad hurling it over the back hedge and the way it spun in the air as it flew to freedom.
‘Shall we go back down now?’ his dad says.
Nathan doesn’t move. ‘So, how close are you to finishing this thing?’
‘Oh, not far off.’
‘It’s just that a friend of Tim’s is selling a mooring on Port Meadow, it’s £1500 a year.’
‘I don’t know how they can charge so much,’ his dad says, glancing towards the stepladder.
‘That’s Oxford for you.’ Nathan says. ‘Anyway I’ve told him we’ll have it. I’ll pay the first year’s rent.’
‘You did what?’
‘It’s a present. The mooring’s empty so we can bring the boat there as soon as you’re ready.’
‘It’s not ready.’ His dad picks up his tea and sits down heavily on the gunwale. ‘I don’t want to rush it just to stick her on some mooring.’
‘So you want it stuck here in the garden?’ Nathan can feel a pinch of tension in his skull. ‘Face it Dad, if it’s left to you this boat is never going anywhere.’
His dad stares at the deck like a tethered bull desperate to charge.
‘Come on, how long have you been working on it?’ Nathan says. ‘You’ll be dead before it’s ever on the water.’
‘She’s not finished,’ his dad’s gripping his mug of tea.
‘So what’s left to do then, Dad?’
‘I’m replacing the cleats, for a start.’
‘How long will that take, an hour? ’
‘And I need to finish painting her.’
‘I’m re-painting her’
‘Oh for god’s sake,’ Nathan thumps his mug onto the gunwale and scrambles past his Dad to the ladder. ‘We’re going to get it finished today.’
He opens the forbidden shed. The shelf unit that was once in his bedroom, home to his books and cuddly toys, now runs along one wall. It’s filled with plastic boxes, each with a black Dymo label indicating what’s inside. Paintbrushes hang from the roof, on a wire fixed between rafters, and his dad’s stacked the paint cans neatly at the back of the shed. Nathan steps over the outboard motor and rummages through a chest of drawers that used to be full of Sally-Anne’s babygros and nappies. He finds the cleats in the bottom drawer wrapped, with some screws, in a chamois leather.
‘Put them down Nathan!’
‘I’m helping you, we’re getting this boat finished this afternoon.’
‘You sound just like your sodding mother. What are you telling me? Three years in music college and now you can build a boat? Give me the cleats.’
Nathan grabs the plastic box labelled ‘Spanners And Screwdrivers’ and shoves past his dad. As he climbs the stepladder he can hear his dad shouting, ‘Nathan, you can’t put the cleats on without the backing plates,’ there’s panic in his voice.
Nathan squats on the deck and unscrews the old cleats. When his dad was first working on the boat he would ask if he could help, but he gave up once his dad started yelling every time Nathan went near it. He doesn’t look up as he hears his dad coming towards him, he could have anything in his hand, Nathan thinks, a hammer, his drill. He feels the back of his neck prickle.
‘I’ve got the plates,’ his dad’s out of breath as he climbs aboard. He goes to the cool box and Nathan hears the clink of beers. ‘Do you want a drink?’
‘No thanks,’ Nathan says.
His dad looks at him, ‘You don’t drink, do you?’
Nathan shakes his head.
‘Can you hold the cleats while I put the sealant on.’ Nathan’s dad takes a tube from his back pocket and squeezes white paste onto the threads. His hands are shaking and Nathan looks away.
‘So we’ll finish the painting next,’ Nathan says. ‘And I’ll come back with Tim tomorrow to take out the back hedge and get the boat onto the water.’
‘The sealant will take at least two days to cure,’ his dad takes a swig of his beer and wipes the excess paste fastidiously from the cleats. ‘And I’ll need time for the paint to dry properly.’
‘Fine!’ Nathan shouts. He takes a breath. ‘Fine, ‘I’ll come back on Monday then and we’ll put it on the river.’
‘I always imagined her on the sea,’ Nathan’s dad says.’
‘All right,’ Nathan says. ‘I’ll hire a truck.’ If that’s what it takes, he thinks. ‘Where do you want to go?’
‘I’ll need to do a bit more work on her before she’s seaworthy,’ Nathan’s dad says.
Nathan drains his tea and leaves the cup in the middle of the deck. He swings his legs over the side of the boat onto the ladder, ‘Right, Port Meadow it is.’ He doesn’t smile. ‘I reckon you’ll be ok doing the painting yourself. See you Monday.’
Tim pulls up outside Nathan’s dad’s house and Nathan and Carla climb out.
‘I’ll drive round into the field,’ Tim says. ‘Meet you round the back.’
Nathan takes Carla’s hand and sees her notice the knee-high weeds growing through the paving slabs of the path, the red paint peeling off the front door.
‘Do I look ok?’ Carla’s Spanish accent gives every sentence an air of something exotic.
‘Don’t worry about it, Dad won’t care. He won’t even notice,’ Nathan rings the doorbell. He glances at Carla, at her thick ponytail and neat body. ‘You do look great, though.’ He knocks on the door and looks through the letterbox.
‘Do you think he’s out?’ Carla asks.
‘No, I told him we were coming,’ Nathan says. ‘Actually yes, maybe.’ He unlocks the door and sticks his head into the dark hallway. ‘Dad?’ There’s no answer and he steps back and shuts the door. ‘Let’s go round the back.’ He takes Carla’s hand and squeezes it. She screws up her nose. ‘Don’t be nervous about meeting him,’ he says. ‘His opinion isn’t worth anything.’
‘It’s lovely,’ Carla says as they walk into the shadow of the boat’s hull. ‘What sort of boat is it?’
Nathan shrugs, ‘A motor boat?’
They walk to the hedge at the back of the garden, Tim is on the other side already pushing a rope though the base of the hedge.
‘Nath, can you pass this round one of the plants and push it back through.’ Nathan squats down. He can see the tendons on the back of Tim’s hands flex as he works. They’re the kind of hands his dad admires, not like Nathan’s own with the nails on his right hand left longer for picking the guitar.
‘Just so you know, this isn’t the normal tree-surgery technique,’ Tim says. ‘But you did say you wanted it out quick. I’ve got a ratchet puller in the pickup if you want it done properly.’
‘Nah, just yank it out,’ Nathan says.
‘You should wait for your dad, no?’ Carla says.
‘He agreed to this.’
‘Where is your old man anyway?’ Tim says.
‘Dunno,’ Nathan says. ‘Don’t care. If he doesn’t show up we can stick the boat on the river without him.’
‘Won’t he drop one?’
Nathan shrugs, ‘It’s for his own good.’
Nathan hears the door of the pickup slam and the rev of Tim’s engine. The rope pulls tight, and the roots crack as the plant is wrenched from the ground.
‘I reckon we’ll need about four more goes to get the rest of it out,’ Tim says, disentangling the rope and dragging it to the remains of the hedge. Nathan looks at the house, his dad could be in there, peering out from behind the closed curtains. Nathan almost hopes he is.
Once the hedge is out Tim backs up over the torn up ground into the garden. The three of them push the trailer so that the bow is pointing towards the river and Tim hitches the trailer to the tow bar. They put the outboard motor into a wheelbarrow and push it to the boat.
‘Are you sure about this?’ Tim says as he and Nathan haul the motor into the boat.
‘Yup, Dad agreed to it so that’s what we’re doing.’
‘But your dad will want to see the launch, no?’ Carla climbs onto the stepladder and passes him the fuel can.
Nathan attaches the motor to the stern and funnels in the fuel, ‘We’re not waiting.’
Nathan climbs down from the boat and Tim gets into the pickup and starts the engine. The boat slides a little as the trailer lurches forward.
‘You don’t know my dad,’ Nathan says to Carla. They follow the boat as it bumps across the field. ‘This is the best thing we could ever do for him.’
Tim drives round in a slow arc so that the trailer is between the pickup and the river and Nathan directs him as he backs down towards the edge of the riverbank. The boat eases into the water and Nathan climbs aboard and unties the securing ropes from the cleats; his wet feet are dripping over the deck. Tim and Carla give the boat a push and Nathan swings down the outboard and pulls the cord. The motor purrs into life as Nathan never doubted it would. It’s perfect, his dad’s life’s work.
Nathan sees his dad half running half stumbling across the field towards the river. ‘Get off my boat!’ he yells.
Nathan turns off the motor, he feels protected by the water between him and his dad. He tries to keep his voice calm. ‘You ready to go?’
‘Nathan, get off now or I’m dragging you off!”
‘Ok dad, fine!’ Nathan takes off his coat and shoes and steps off the side of the boat. As he hits the water he lets the air out of his lungs so that he sinks down into the green brown of the river. He tries to expel more air but his chest is tightening and he can’t help but come up.
‘Nathan, you idiot, what are you doing?’
He spits a jet of river water, it tastes like soil. ‘You told me to get off the boat.’
‘But I didn’t tell you to ruin my hedge.’
‘We made a plan on Thursday, remember.’
‘For you to drag my boat off without asking?’
‘For me to help you.’
‘Help me Nathan? Really? When have any of you ever done that?’
‘When did you ever let us?’ Nathan treads water, if Tim and Carla weren’t here he thinks he would just swim away.
‘It was all take! Your mum coming to me saying Nathan needs money for music lessons, Nathan needs a new guitar.’
Nathan lies back in the water and stares at the sky. ‘If you’d paid the maintenance she wouldn’t have had to ask.’
‘What?’ his dad shouts.
‘You were just crap Dad, totally crap.’
‘Nathan, I can’t hear you. Get out of the water,’ his dad’s face is the angry purple of a drinker. He looks over at the pickup and sees Tim and Carla sitting on the bank, and his expression changes. ‘Tim, good to see you.’
‘Hi Patrick, you’ve done a lovely job with the boat,’ Tim stands up. ‘We’ve been giving Nathan a hand.’
Carla shakes Nathan’s dad’s hand. ‘Pleased to meet you Mr Moran.’
‘Sorry about the hedge,’ Tim says. ‘Collateral. There was no other way of getting her out. We’ll sort out the mess before you get back.’
Nathan swims to the bank with a rope in his hand and when Tim pulls him out he hauls the boat towards them. ‘Come on Dad, I’m not taking it on my own.’
Nathan’s dad glances at Tim and climbs onto the boat and Nathan follows.
‘Thanks guys,’ Nathan shouts, he pulls off his sodden t-shirt and puts on his coat.
‘No problemo,’ Tim says.
Nathan’s dad connects the motor to the steering and goes to the cab to take the wheel. Nathan goes in and stands beside him.
‘Bon voyage,’ Tim calls and he and Carla start clapping.
‘Buen viaje,’ she shouts.
Nathan looks back at her, ‘I’ll call you later.’
Nathan’s dad leans over to the cool box and takes out a beer. His dad is silent, conciliatory, the way he always was when he’d finished shouting and wanted to avoid any further discussion.
‘I’ll have one too, to celebrate,’ Nathan says, because he can’t think of anything else to say.
His dad grins and opens Nathan’s beer with his key ring. They clink their bottles together and Nathan puts the beer to his lips, but he doesn’t drink.
‘She’s pretty,’ Nathan’s dad says.
It takes Nathan a moment to realise he’s not talking about the boat. ‘Yes.’
‘A proper looker. Tim’s in good shape now too,’ he glances over his shoulder at Nathan. ‘How long have they been together?’
‘Dad, Carla’s my girlfriend. From college.’
His dad looks surprised. ‘Oh, she’s the Italian one?’
‘Spanish, yes. She’s finished her course now so she’s come to Oxford. We’re living together.’
‘Yes, I did know that,’ his dad says.
‘We’re doing gigs together.’ The sun has gone behind a cloud and Nathan shivers in his wet jeans.
‘Let me give you some advice.’ Nathan’s dad smiles at him, man to man. ‘Go it alone. You’ve got a talent with the guitar and with your songs. Don’t tie yourself down with any bird, they all shaft you in the end.’
‘God, Dad! You don’t know anything about her!’ Nathan says and too late he registers the compliment his dad has paid him.
‘You know, if you want to come out on the boat some time, well, just give me a call or come round or something. You and Cara.’
‘Carla,’ Nathan says. ‘Thanks Dad, we might.’
‘I haven’t been on the water since Mevagissy,’ Nathan’s dad says. ‘Do you remember?’
‘When we went mackerel fishing?’ It had been the last holiday before they left him and Nathan remembers waking up in the cottage on the morning of the boat trip and listening to the sound of his dad retching in the bathroom.
‘Do you have your phone with you?’ Nathan’s dad asks.
Nathan pulls it out of his coat pocket.
‘D’you mind giving Tim a call, ask him to stick around for a bit.’
‘He’s going to be around for a while,’ Nathan says. ‘
‘It’s good of him to clear up,’ Nathan’s dad says. ‘ And it means he can give us a hand back in with the boat too. You’ve really got me thinking about getting the old girl on the sea, but it’s going to take a lot of work.’ He finishes his beer and takes another from the cool box. ‘So I’m going to say no to that offer of the mooring, I need her back in the garden so I can get her seaworthy.’