Annemarie’s short stories have been published in literary magazines and journals in Ireland, the UK and the US and have won or been shortlisted for many awards. In 2014, she won the biennial Michael McLaverty short story competition and was joint runner-up in the inaugural KWS Hilary Mantel international short story prize. Previous awards include the Bryan MacMahon short story award and the Columbia Journal fiction prize. Her novel, Siren, will be published in the UK by Hutchinson (Penguin Random House) in Spring 2016. Annemarie was educated at Trinity College Dublin, King’s Inns and the Courtauld Institute. She lives in London.
Shortlisted in the 2014 Seán Ó Faoláin Competition
Just a half an hour at the crematorium, followed by a plate of sandwiches in the pub. It felt like a rush job. Dad would have liked a bit more thought put into it — a drawing slipped inside the coffin, a football shirt in pride of place. But they weren’t that kind of family, if they were even still a family at all.
Phil was scarcely in the door when the phone rang. The woman at the other end of the line sounded harried, impatient. She said she was a solicitor and that she wanted to discuss something, a bequest actually. She said that this was most irregular, that they absolutely never took custody of personal property. She muttered something about a temp.
‘Anyway, I’ve absolutely no idea how we came to have the yacht.’
‘Hang on a minute,’ Phil said. ‘Dad had a yacht?’
‘We’re not talking about a real yacht,’ said the solicitor. ‘It’s just one of those remote control things.’ She sighed. ‘Look, I don’t want to pressure you at a time like this, but is there any chance you could pick it up?’
Marnie drove him over there. He was glad he wasn’t on the bus when he saw the size of it, propped up against the wall in reception. Must have been a metre long. His first thought was where on earth they would store it, but Marnie read his mind. ‘That’s why we have a cellar,’ she said.
For the moment, though, they left it in the kitchen, right next to the recycling bin. That evening, his brother Matt popped round. Matt had been left some premium bonds, but said he’d have preferred the boat. He stood there staring at it, while Marnie shook some crisps into a couple of large wooden bowls in the centre of the table.
‘Sweet chilli and lime in that one. And this one’s chicken something.’
They cracked open some beers, and the three of them sat around in the kitchen and talked about work, and about Glastonbury and whether anyone would manage to get tickets this time around.
Each time there was a lull, Phil found himself staring absent-mindedly at the boat.
‘Has it got a name?’ asked Matt.
‘Eglantine,’ said Marnie. ‘It’s on the stern. Tyne, teen, whatever.’
Matt made a face.
‘It’s a flower,’ Marnie said, plonking down more beers. ‘Eglantine. And a girl’s name. In France, anyhow.’ She spoke like she’d looked it up. ‘Bit of a mouthful. And what do you do to shorten it? Eggy? I don’t think so.’
Enough about the name, thought Phil, reaching for a handful of the sweet chilli.
‘How much do you reckon it’s worth?’ Matt scraped back his chair. He went over for a closer look, gave the sail an exploratory rub.
‘I wouldn’t give you twenty quid for it,’ said Phil.
That night, when Matt had gone, Phil brought the yacht down into the cellar. It was cold down there, and smelt of mouse. None of the boxes was big enough, but he found some cellophane and wrapped it around the mast. There was something reverential about the gesture, and he liked that. It felt good to offer the boat some respect when he didn’t have a clue what else to do with it.
Next morning, there was an email waiting for him from Matt, with a link to eBay. £180 second-hand. Might as well flog it.
But Phil wanted to wait a while. He wanted to think before he chucked it. The whole of that week, he thought about the yacht as soon as his head hit the pillow. Sometimes it appeared in jumbled dreams of shipwreck and last-ditch heroics. One night, it was hijacked somewhere off Sudan. He was tempted to think the boat was some sort of message. But, try as he might, he couldn’t figure out what Dad had been trying to say.
‘Some story he read you?’ prompted Marnie. ‘Some seaside place you went on holiday?’ But Dad had never read them stories. He couldn’t remember holidays either. Mum had been with Charles as far back as Phil could remember. Dad kept in touch, but he didn’t really feature. Dad was bad breath and a football team that never won.
As for the yacht, Phil bought new batteries for the remote, but something stopped him taking things further. He’d seen men with boats like this on one of the ponds on the Common. Several times, he’d passed them on his bike as he ducked the branches of the chestnuts. He had a vague idea Dad might have taken them there as kids, once or twice. But as for standing there now, fiddling with a boat alongside a bunch of complete strangers. Well, it just wasn’t going to happen.
There wasn’t much call for Phil to visit the cellar, and gradually he thought less and less about the boat. Then, one day he went down to read the meter and came face to face with it, trapped inside its cellophane iceberg. He turned his back, but somehow he just couldn’t leave it there. It ended up on its own kitchen chair, in a nest of cushions. That Saturday, Marnie was off to her sister’s and Phil was up early to drop her off at the Junction in time for the seven thirty train.
On the way back, he called into the shop and bought a few things—milk, paper, breakfast stuff. Back home, he made himself a coffee. He began eating a pain au chocolat, but it tasted of soap so he threw it in the bin. Suddenly, he was starving. He pricked two fat sausages and put them under the grill. While the sausages spat, he read an article on some prison in La Paz where the inmates run their own coke factory, then about some footballer who’s allergic to grass, the kind you play on. He was primed for weirdness after all that, and taking his dead father’s boat on a trial run didn’t really seem that much of a big deal.
After the divorce, Dad had moved into a first floor flat on the Northside; one of those houses with the long scraggy front gardens that overlook the Common. On overnight visits, Matt and Phil used to sit at the window and marvel at the thundering road with its big red buses and Sainsbury’s lorries. Rumble rumble boom rumble boom.
Even on a Saturday morning, the juggernauts just kept on coming. Crossing the same road now, Phil held the boat out in front of him, then almost lost it when a gust of wind caught the sail and set him momentarily off-kilter. He successfully dodged the 345, only to have a near-miss with a pushbike all pimped up with daisies. ‘Wanker,’ yelled the cyclist, and flashed him a finger.
He wasn’t used to been sworn at by hippyish girls on bikes. By the time he’d reached the far pavement, he was feeling a bit raw. He looked around for cover, chose a man with his helmet-and-stabiliser boy and tagged along behind. They turned off at the bandstand, though, and by the time he reached the first of the Common’s ponds Phil was on his own.
A line of fishermen lounged in deckchairs parked low at the flaps of their greenish tents, rods propped up over the scurfy water. Nobody seemed to talk much. Maybe it forewarned the fish. Phil sidled over towards the water’s edge.
‘No fucking way, mate.’
All the other fishermen were looking at him now.
‘Caught anything?’ he asked, before remembering that was never the right question to ask a fisherman.
The next pond was for ducks. It had a sign. Absolutely NO Fishing. It didn’t say anything about boats. Phil had a fantasy of Marnie there some day, kitted out in Lycra and pushing two tiny clones in a high-tech jogging buggy. Today, it was the Rayban Dads. They surrounded the pond like special agents while their free-range kids flung ciabatta at the ducks. Phil didn’t really want to get sworn at again. He put the boat down a moment to rest his arms, but a couple of toddlers were onto it right away. When they started tugging at the sail, he prised it away from them and set off again.
The boating pond was next to the cut-through road where the lorry drivers stopped for a breather before the final surge into London. A cluster of burger vans worked night and day to serve the truckers, and Phil associated the place with the smell of onion and cheap fat. Along one side of the pond was a ratty-looking shed with a veranda.
He placed the boat down gently on its keel, leaned the main mast against the shed. He could almost hear Dad, giving off yards about something or other, but making it funny too. There was a memory in that, but he couldn’t quite grasp it, and then the men arrived, and it slipped away. There were four of them, moving in a horizontal line like a team of bouncers. Each man cradled a boat in his arms.
It didn’t help that Eglantine seemed bigger than most of the others, whiter and sleeker. He should have come midweek, or skipped breakfast and come straight up from dropping Marnie off at the Junction. The men stopped on the other side of the shed and rested their boats on the ground, just a few metres away from his. He didn’t make eye contact, just stood there fiddling with the controls. He wondered if he was even allowed to be there without having joined something first. He wondered if these could be the people Mum had mentioned meeting at the hospital. She’d gone to see Dad a couple of times, near the end, because Charles said the poor bugger might be lonely.
‘But he’s got loads of visitors,’ she said when she came back. ‘Boat people, Charles. Some anoraky club on the Common.’
By the time Phil had summoned up enough courage to approach the water, a couple of the men were already launching their boats onto the rippled surface of the pond. Another pair were raising a white pop-up gazebo, the kind you get at B&Q, then a trestle table. There were flasks of tea and crinkly silver bundles of sandwiches, all unloaded from a van parked on the cut-through.
A woman arrived with a picnic cooler. She wore an oversized shirt and, though she must have been at least fifty, her hair hung around her face like an old-fashioned doll’s in long tubular ringlets. He wondered if she was the full shilling. Then, he realised she looked familiar, from behind a till maybe. Yes, he thought, the Tesco’s on Battersea Rise. She said Hi, and that her name was Sharon, and then the rain came.
One of the older men beckoned Phil in under the gazebo. He nodded out at the rain. ‘Shouldn’t last long. Just the odd shower, they said.’
They all stood there side-by-side and watched it bouncing off the wild surface of the pond. Phil wondered if he still looked like Dad. People always used to say he did, when he was a kid. It used to drive Matt crazy. ‘Why you?’ he’d ask. ‘Why does it always have to be you?’
When the rain stopped, the flasks were opened. Someone called Trev passed him a plastic cup, limp with hot tea. Trev was the first to recognise the yacht. ‘Nice to see her back on the water,’ he said. He looked steadily at Phil over the rim of his plastic cup. ‘Glad she’s not been taken out of commission.’
Phil was about to ask how long he’d known Dad when Trev was distracted by some activity at the edge of the pond. Snagged on the end of Sharon’s long umbrella was a black plastic bag, heavy with water and some soft rounded mass. She carried the dripping bag, still speared, over to a council skip at the side of the shed, and dropped it in.
‘S’alright,’ she smirked, looking round at them all. ‘No dead bodies.’
‘As if there aren’t perfectly good bins,’ said Trev, and shook his head.
There was talk of how people thought they could shag any old stuff into ponds on the Common, and then they seemed to run out of conversation until Trev came right out with it. ‘You must be Percy’s boy,’ he said.
His father had never used the name Percy, though that’s what he’d been christened. He’d always been known as Ralph, but Phil didn’t know why. Mum said the nurses would always ask whether she was looking for Percy. ‘He’s known as Ralph,’ she’d tell them every time. ‘Make a note on his file, why don’t you. Jesus!’
The guy who’d helped Trev with the gazebo was down examining the boat. Phil was transfixed by the home-made tattoo on his neck, an inky blue F.
‘He’s had the fin and bulb redone. He do that job his-self?’
Phil didn’t know. He wondered what else he didn’t know about Dad and Percy and Ralph.
‘Just look at the shape of that hull,’ the tattoo man continued. ‘That’s what wins your race: your ergonomics. Percy knew his ergonomics.’
‘No better man,’ said Sharon. She nodded vigorously, then looked at the ground. ‘Did you visit him?’ Phil asked. ‘At the hospital.’
Sharon looked away, but the tattoo man explained that they’d had a rota. ‘We made sure someone was inmost days. Always thought we might bump into you some time. Never mind, Percy said we’d see you one day. He was sure you’d come, once you saw Eglantine.’
Phil looked at the cracked cement surrounding the pond, and thought he might cry. He’d no idea why he’d never gone to the hospital. It seemed extraordinary now.
Trev opened a hip flask. ‘Small nip, son?’
Phil nodded, and held out his plastic cup. He tried his best to pull himself together, swallowed hard. ‘A flower, isn’t it, the eglantine?’
Trev swivelled the cap shut, and looked straight at him. ‘Well, it might be, but she’s not named after no flower.’
Sharon came and stood so close to Phil he could smell her hairspray. It made him feel queasy. He wished she’d give him some breathing space, or, better still, go away. He felt panicky. He wished he hadn’t come. He didn’t want to know about the name.
‘It’s Eglantine as in Road.’ He pronounced it tyne, not teen. ‘Don’t suppose you remember that far back. He loved that house. Happiest days of his life, he said. You being born, all that. Pity.’
He seemed about to say something else, but Sharon cut in. ‘He wasn’t bitter, though,’ she said quickly.
‘Percy wouldn’t want you thinking he was bitter.’
Phil had never even heard of Eglantine Road. He was embarrassed not to know. Remember? Remember what? All he remembered of Dad was the flat on the Northside: a brownish place, its surfaces strewn with leads and adapters and puddles of sticky coins. And the feelings, he remembered those, too. Embarrassment when he compared Dad to Charles, boredom on those overnight visits. Guilt. On his last visit, just before Uni, a pink cushion had appeared and a strange knitted tea cosy. Dad had had a haircut, and there were biscuits with the tea. He glanced at Sharon, sizing her up. Surely not.
‘Trev said you mightn’t come at all,’ she said, ‘but Percy never doubted it. Said you’d remember, straight off, once you clapped eyes on Eglantine. You was only little, you and Matt, but you loved that boat.’
It felt weird to hear her say his brother’s name. He wondered whether Dad had wanted him to be friends with these people. He felt a flash of impatience with him. ‘Thanks,’ he said. He didn’t know what else he was supposed to say.
‘Least we could do,’ said Trev. ‘We all looked up to Percy, didn’t we Sharon? Bit of a guru, your Dad.’
He tried to think of Dad as a guru, but it was hard. Dad was tinned soup and dirty windows. He was grey Y-Fronts drying on the back of a kitchen chair.
‘Rarely lost a race.’
‘That’s not all, though. He liked people,’ said Sharon. ‘Know what I mean?'
‘Over to the flat of a Sunday,’ said someone else. ‘Chat. Cuppa tea.’
Phil was alarmed to see that Sharon was weeping silently, her finger coiled into one of the long brownish ringlets. He didn’t stay long after that. Made his excuses, and went. He’d walked half a mile in the wrong direction, the boat heavy in his arms, before his own eyes cleared.
That evening, he finished off the rest of the sausages with a bit of mash he found at the back of the fridge. He didn’t feel like watching telly, so he sat at the kitchen table with the lights off and Eglantine propped up beside him. He missed Marnie. Twice, he started to key in her number. He wanted to talk about the Common, but he couldn’t put into words what had happened. Then, the phone rang.
He wasn’t in the mood for Matt.
‘You gotta get in there right away, Phil, to be in with a chance.’
‘Marnie’s back tomorrow.’
Just then, an image flashed across his mind. Dad had a boat in his arms. Matt was in short pants. Sun fizzed on pond water, and got in his eyes. His skin was itchy. Sunburn, maybe, or hives. But they had won something and there was ice cream and he was proud.
©2015 Annemarie Neary
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