As the afternoon progresses the weather brightens and the guitarists (it turns out there are two of them) materialise and give us some flamenco, laced with a little Senegalese spirit. At one point they ask if anyone can play percussion and Wen drags me up by the armpit and shouts ‘Here, here. He can.’
They’ve got some of those little tin Arab drums from somewhere and I rather self-consciously sit down on the mat and have a go. It’s been a long time and I’m quietly cursing myself for telling Wen about the Purple Willies and the Wood Spirit. Luckily I still seem to know how to do it and can still knock out a reasonable rhythm without tripping up too often. People start to dance and after a while Lisa comes and sits on the floor behind me with her legs around me and her arms around my waist and her chin on my shoulder.
Later on it’s raining hard out again and everybody it seems is down in the bar. The chairs and tables have been pulled back and a dance floor has been revealed underneath and now it is packed with moving bodies, dancing now to some ‘90s trip-hop, next to some seventies glam rock, then to something that sounds like it might be some sort of Cajun jazz-funk. The intense atmospheric humidity swirls with our sweat and the fragrance of booze and other, less familiar intoxicants.
I want to sit and watch for a while but Lisa comes over and leads me onto the dance floor and holds me close to her. We gently turn through the crowd and I try to become oblivious. I can’t think. I can’t think about anything. I need her so desperately. I can’t stand being alone. It’s not very manly but I never have been able to stand it. I understand that now. So I just let it happen. Her arms are around my neck and her breath is hot and damp on my shoulder. I pull my head back to look at her, move the hair away from her face and find that she has been crying too and I kiss the tears away and go back to holding her and turning around in the midst of all the bacchanalia. Her hair smells of peaches. My girl would not have wanted me to be alone here would she? Or am I just making excuses?
After a while we sit down again and pick up our drinks. We sit close together on one of the sofas. Raz and Wen are gone and we don’t know what to do next.
At dusk we decide to go up on deck but it’s crowded up there too. The rain has stopped but the steam from its evaporation has created a fog over everything. The land rises to port like a silent giant covered with a blanket. I can’t help but look at it and wonder what it wants this time. I tear my eyes away from its bulk and see Raz involved in some sort of party game with some of the men. It seems to involve taking their clothes off. Ruth is there too but has somehow managed apparently only to lose her shoes so far, whereas Raz is down to her knickers. Typical. Lisa raises an eyebrow as if to say ‘Shall we join them?’ but she’s joking and we move on. Everywhere is just thronged with people. We need some peace – that’s what I tell myself.
We find a place up near the prow. A few lonely souls lean on the rails and look at the sea, or beyond it, some in pairs but mostly alone. Lisa and I sit together on a bench, half facing each other, our four hands all intermingled, our knees touching, our bare feet overlapping. She kisses me lightly on the lips and says ‘Is this alright?’ and I nod but I can’t help the tears coming. We sit forehead to forehead for a while.
‘I’m not being much fun am I’ I say eventually.
‘No, it’s not. You should find someone. Someone who’ll give you a damn good seeing to’ I say, trying to be funny.
She sits back, looking into my face. Not quite believing what I’ve just said. She’s still holding onto my hands though.
‘That’s not why I’m here’ she says, as if I’m being a very silly boy.
‘I wanted to...’
‘You know... Because you never...’
‘Oh for God’s sake’ she says, laughing a little.
‘And because you’re lovely of course, just in case you were thinking... Not out of pity...’
‘Gabriel’ she says. ‘Shut up. It’s ok.’ She turns and we sit facing the sea together, still holding hands but less tightly. The sky is deepest blue. You have to look for a while to distinguish it from the silhouette of the land beneath. She turns and kisses me again, but it’s not the kind of kiss you give someone when you think sex may be about to follow. It’s the kind you give someone when you know you’re going to be just good friends.
‘I can get a shag anywhen, really’ she says. ‘I mean, look at me’ and she turns to me and I have to say she does look ravishing.
‘I would have loved to, you know? Really... You are absolutely gorgeous.’
‘Well... You’re not exactly available are you?’
We sit and look at each other for a moment longer, still holding hands. Then we cuddle up and go back to the view and I think – this is it – this is all I ever need isn’t it – to be cuddled up with a woman. It’s not even about sex. She could be my wife, the love of my life, my best friend or even my sister. I just can’t function without her. I’d thought that time alone in Lewes had cured me but no. Because here I am again.
‘Tell me about her then’ she says. ‘What was her name? How long had you known her? How did you meet?’
And I tell her our story, or as much as I can remember, past lives and after-lives, beginning with the party where we met and ending with the hospital bed.
‘Were you still painting, at the end?’ she says, after a long pause, listening to the sounds in the darkness – homing calls, distress calls, mating calls – who knows? One of the creatures is very close. There’s a tiny chirruping coming from just over the side but we can’t see anything down there.
‘When I could. Mostly I just painted her once I couldn’t get out so much... or the garden and the view across the river.’ I look down at my hands and they seem to have changed as we sit there, become cramped tight and full of gristle. I feel unaccountably small and hunched and I fear that getting up and walking is something I’m going to have to plan quite carefully in advance. Lisa’s hands still seem young and fresh however. I hold them in my lap.
‘What about her daughter?’
‘Emily’ I say.
‘Emily’ she says.
‘She was an excellent woman too – a gardener. Can you imagine that? Strange how things turn out.’
We nod our heads together and look at our fingers, woven together.
‘You were very lucky I think’ she says, without bitterness.
‘Oh, luck had nothing to do with it’ I say, laughing a little. ‘It was destiny.’
‘Yeah, right’ she says.
Then she says ‘What was it you died of, may I ask?’ as lightly as she can.
I can hardly recall now. It all seemed very muddled toward the end.
‘I don’t really know, to be honest’ I say. ‘I was terribly confused. I don’t think I even knew where I was half the time’
‘Was there very much pain?’
‘Some, at the end.’
‘It’s ok’ she says, patting my hand, but it’s not ok. I do remember it. It wasn’t very dignified and I wasn’t very patient I know, but Sophie was there the whole time. I do remember knowing I’d have done the same for her, and more. Anything. I’d have done anything for her.
‘Towards the end I couldn’t speak and so I couldn’t tell her how much I loved her, and that was the cruellest thing – much worse than the pain. I think she knew though. I’d told her enough times, every day actually, just in case.’
‘I’m sure she knew.’
‘Anyway, can we talk about something cheerful?’ I say and we spend the next couple of hours just sitting there, chatting about the books we’d read and films we’d seen and what our desert island discs were – The Fisher King and the Princess Bride, Disco Cactus, The Time Traveller’s Wife, Dixie & Ted, Felt Mountain and the Twelve Step Polka, Annie Lennox and Stevie Wonder.
Then she moves on to bands and singers I have no memory of.
‘I lost track of what was going on when I reached about forty’ I say, somewhat apologetically.
‘Forty’ she says. ‘That’s pretty good going. What was the last proper record you bought, new stuff, you know.’
‘Sue Novia. That would have been, er... 2020?’
‘Cool. I had that. I bet you were a cool dad.’
I laugh and shake my head. ‘Cool and middle aged. It’s sort of an oxymoron. I was the embarrassing step-dad that turns up pissed at his step daughter’s eighteenth and makes a twat of himself dancing and trying to discuss the latest bands with her mates.’
‘Oh God, really?’
I nod. ‘Happy days’ I say.
‘I always loved all the old movie scores’ she says later on, ‘Midnight Cowboy, Born Free... all that John Barry stuff. She sings ‘We’ve got all the time in the world...’ smiling wistfully into the past.
‘You have a lovely voice’ I say.
‘Thank you’ she says.
‘A bit before your time.’
‘I don’t know why’ I say, ‘but I always feel tearful when I hear that song. Never fails, every time.’
‘It’s because they haven’t.’
‘They haven’t got all the time in the world. They haven’t got much time at all. He’s just telling her that to stop her being sad.’
‘Who told you that?’
‘It’s just in the melody. You can hear it.’
I look at her and I know she’s right. She’s right about everything.
Lisa laughs and the moment passes. We go back to discussing TV – all the old series we used to watch – Northern Exposure, Bones, Weekend State. It turns out we were both big Joss Whedon fans and we’re both still angry about Firefly, even after all these years.
‘Everything about it was just perfect’ she says. ‘You could see why they’d have to put a stop to it.’
‘Credit where credit’s due’ I say. ‘The Americans could sure make TV when they put their minds to it, I’ll give them that.’
‘Those were the days’ she says, only half joking. I give her a squeeze and she grins at me.
‘Actually’ I say ‘I was lying earlier on about Sophie and I always being out doing stuff, staying active, like you’re supposed to when you’re old. In fact we used to spend a lot of time just slobbing out in front of the box watching old DVDs.’
‘Sounds idyllic’ she sighs, only half joking.
It seems funny now, to think of us then. Lisa would have been a teenager, and I would have been old enough to know better, both getting into Buffy the Vampire Slayer at about the same time, and her, getting into the music I’d grown up on in the seventies.
‘But I’d have thought you would have been out being very political, what with everything...’ she says after we’ve contemplated the irony for a while.
‘Nah. I was never really into all that. I guess you could say I did whatever could be done by firing off emails to the Today programme... and I paid my subs – Friends of the Earth, Avaaz, Amnesty and so on. I occasionally toddled along to meetings. I volunteered to teach painting to homeless people for a while.’
‘Really? That sounds very er... laudable’ she says tentatively.
‘Not really’ I say dismissively. ‘It was hopeless. There were all these stupid reasons why these people were having to come to us instead of being able to go out into the world and find a place for themselves – all because they didn’t look the part – wouldn’t just shut up and do as they were told. Of course we got some right evil bastards in too sometimes... The teenagers used to cheer me up though. They always made more sense to me somehow...’
‘But that’s good’ she says tentatively. ‘Most people would have just... I don’t know... You tried to make a difference. Didn’t you?’
I give her a brief humourless laugh and shake my head.
‘I don’t know. It just seems so feeble now. I knew I wasn’t making any real difference. And I don’t know if I would have, given the chance. I just don’t know. I was too comfortable. I had too much to lose. I suppose I was just one of the eighty percent.’
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter. What I mean is I was just another ordinary, mediocre, middle class bloke, preoccupied with his little life. My uncle used to say I was a fully paid up member of the Awkward Squad but I was never really a radical. It was just meetings once a month and signing petitions and selling badges, teaching junkies to paint. I mean, it’s not exactly the most revolutionary... compared with what we were up against... I just never really fitted in with the whole “groupthink” thing anyway. I argued with people a lot for what it’s worth.’
‘Really? You?’ she says ‘I find that hard to believe.’ I give her a little shove in the ribs and she giggles.
‘Ha ha’ I reply dryly.
‘No but seriously Gabriel – no, look at me – you did your bit don’t you think?’
I squirm like one of my adolescent students.
‘No I mean it. Look, you keep on about us all being thankful, being happy with what we are, not constantly craving power and recognition, and now here you are complaining that you didn’t stand up and be counted. It’s the same thing really, don’t you see?’
‘But you did your bit. Gabriel we can’t all be like your friend what’s her name... with the AIDS victims in Africa.’
‘Right. We can’t all be saints like her. And anyway I think you were, a bit, in your own way.’
‘Absolutely. You never let them make you play their stupid games. You just refused. You found your own way. Most people just do what everyone else does. You stood up to them. And you never went in for all that stupid eco-puritanical hair shirts crap either. You talk about it like your life was some enormous cop out, but you know, I think you have a right to feel pretty damn pleased about it. Don’t you?’
‘I suppose...’ I say, highly flattered but somewhat sceptical nonetheless. I still can’t shake the feeling that I should indeed have done more somehow. I’m not sure what exactly. I have to admit it was bloody good though. We were very fortunate, Sophie and I.
As I look around at the boat and the people here I feel I’ve already been away for several years and life seems a very long way away. Mostly, toward the end I remember that peace we had up there on the hillside, with our little domain around us – the fruit trees and the pond and the various shacks and frames and other constructions half buried in the vegetation out the back, and us indoors in our little circle of cushions and rugs and dogs and mugs and various bits of paper, with Joni singing Hejira and dinner on the go and maybe Emily and her bloke come to stay, or Justine there by the stove with her book. The rain beats down outside. The cafetería gurgles. The veggie patch will need weeding again. It always needs weeding. It won’t get done today, that’s for sure. And slowly it gets dark outside and we settle in for the night.
‘I think the world is changing anyway’ says Lisa. ‘I think more and more people are looking around and wondering what all the fuss is about, like you said.’
‘I hope you’re right’ I say.
‘Of course I am’ she says.
Now the sky is as dark as the land and our boat is a tiny lost satellite. We look around and notice that everyone else has gone although the music is still playing down below. ‘Must be late’ I say and begin to ease myself up to stand and am surprised to find it’s as easy as it ever was. I stand up straight, look into Lisa’s face and give her a kiss. We grin stupidly at each other.
‘Come on old man’ she says. ‘I feel like dancing.’
‘Absolutely’ I say, and we head down.
On our arrival in the bar we are delighted to discover that the kitchen is serving crêpes. Wen meets us there, struggling to control her chocolate syrup.
‘How bloody stereotypical an image of gluttony is this?’ she says gleefully. We collect ours and sit with her and some others we’ve not met before, sedately enjoying the party going on around us.
‘What have you two love birds been up to?’ she shouts to us across the table ‘I hope you’ve been up to no good.’
‘Nah’ shouts Lisa, patting my knee ‘He’s spoken for.’
‘I know’ she says, with feeling and I feel very flattered and touched.
We dance a bit more – to some old seventies disco as I recall, and then Raz turns up wearing what appears to be a toga. She’s having a great time. We all do that inarticulate cheering toasting thing with our glasses that people do when they are enjoying themselves too much to speak.
Eventually we all pass out in the big leather sofas, Lisa and I curled together, Wen slumped across the way, Raz sprawled indecorously over one of the kitchen staff. It’s getting light outside.
I hear the grinding of steel. They’re getting ready to dock. It’s too early to wake the others, but that’s what’s happening, and I’m dreading it.
I wish we could just stay like this now forever.