Kingfisher Blue, Excerpt

It was a blistering hot afternoon the first time I took Helen sailing. I’d had a large lunch and wasn’t feeling much like doing anything at all – I was lying flat on my stomach with my eyes closed, my head resting across my arms, on a small sandy beach in Canada. The sun burnt fiercely down on my back and legs and I’d stuck a newspaper over my neck. Just beyond my toes I could hear the water lapping gently on the shore; there was hardly any wind just there. I was in Georgian Bay, a sheltered inlet of Lake Huron.

In front of me, towering above, was the high wooden chair where I was supposed to sit like an umpire at Wimbledon: for I was the lifeguard. Come three o’clock I’d have to blow the whistle for Afternoon Swim, and the kids would come swarming down through the wood to the beach and splash about in the water in their rubber inner tubes. It was a Quaker family camp, and I’d been asked at the last minute to help out because the regular lifeguard had gotten sick. The kids were fun; but this hour before they were allowed to come down to the beach, when I was quite alone here, was something else: a special time of peace each day. I lay listening to the gentle washing of the waves on the shore behind me, and allowed myself to stop thinking about the past with its many failures and its single cataclysm, and simply let images wash over me unbidden.

I heard Helen calling me long before I saw her. She must have been running down the dry path through the wood, over the railroad track and on to the beach.

“Hi there! Lewis!” she shouted as she climbed over the little wooden pier which separated the boating area from the swimming beach. “I thought I might find you down here.”

Reluctantly I sat up and folded the newspaper from my neck.

“Hallo, Helen. Where are your boys?”

“I left them playing with the two families from Toronto – they’ll all be down for a swim later, but first I thought I’d take you up on your offer to take me out in the Laser. We’ve got time, haven’t we?” She folded herself neatly down on the sand beside me, smiling. She was wearing blue shorts over a green striped swimsuit, and sneakers on her feet; and she’d covered herself in something that smelt heavenly – lavender, I suspected: I love the scent of lavender. Her sons Rob and Nathan must have been eight and six that summer, I guess, and they’d found several other children the same age in the camp.

“Well I don’t know about the Laser, Helen. It’s a lot faster than the Sunflowers,” I told her.

But the safe little Sunflowers, shaped comfortingly like a row of bathtubs, were still packed away from the day before, whereas the Laser lay temptingly by the water’s edge, tied up to the jetty in the boating area, for I had already borrowed it that morning for a solo trip out to the headland. It belonged to a genial geology teacher from Ottawa who had been keen that I should enjoy it; he told me it was a one-man fun-boat.

“I suppose if you fetch yourself a lifejacket,” I said reluctantly. I never have been any good at disappointing people.

Her whole face lit up, and she ran over to choose a couple of big orange lifejackets from the shed. I hoped she might already have had some experience of sailing; after all, I gathered that she came from Auckland: city of a thousand sails, or something like that. Maybe she was a better sailor than me! I don’t know if you know what a Laser looks like, but it’s very light in the water, just over twelve foot long on its waterline and slim like a pale grey steel rocket gliding effortlessly along, its bow covered with a flat platform and with a very small cockpit towards the back, comfortable for one person. The tall dacron sail of this particular craft was not the usual white sail of a Laser – for this was a special edition model, with a sail the colour of a kingfisher on a summer’s day. It made me think of Edmund – kingfisher was his favourite colour.

“Do you mind sitting up on the front?” I asked her, but she shook her head and assured me that right there up on the bow, hanging onto the mast, was exactly where she wanted to be. I knew I had to be very careful to keep the boat stable as she climbed aboard – for it only weighs a hundred and thirty pounds; I held the mast as high up as I could reach to steady the craft, holding Helen firmly with my other hand. A wave lapped over the bow as she settled there, splashing her shorts above the sunburn.

Then I climbed into the cockpit and untied the rope. “We’ve got time to sail over to the island, I think,” I said, turning to sniff at the wind. “Ready?”

Once we left the sheltered cove there was quite a strong breeze. As we turned and headed out across the bay, we looked back and saw the wooded hill rising steeply behind us, and when we gathered speed we saw some of the other camps and holiday homes appear along the waterfront like matchstick buildings.

“So what brings a Kiwi over here to Canada?” I asked her when the Laser and I had had a small battle to decide which of us was boss, and I’d established something which passed for control.

She hesitated.

“A holiday, Helen?”

“No, not a holiday. I’ve left my husband. I had to get the boys away…”

I grunted sympathetically; I had imagined something like that, for Helen had been in the Camp for several days without once mentioning her children’s father.

“We had a pretty bad time…” She spread her hands out along the bow, then rapidly put them back tight round the mast as the Laser changed direction slightly. “There was a woman in Meeting who knew about this Camp. When she heard I might be getting a job in Canada, she said if we could possibly get to Camp, it would be very good for us. Friendship and fun, she said. She told me there was a wonderful atmosphere…”

“Guess that’s true,” I said. But no, Lewis Jackson, I thought to myself, this is not the moment to tell her why you came here yourself to find something remarkably similar.

“Paul, his name was. Is…” she said. “My ex-husband, I mean.”

“You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, Helen.”

“No, but I do want to. Now.” She shifted her seat and looked over to the island, which was rapidly approaching. “For a long time I didn’t go to Meeting, you see, because I was afraid that people there would say ‘how lovely to see you, Helen – how are you?’ and I wouldn’t know what to answer.”

“No?”

“I had no idea how I was, Lewis.” She turned to look at me, a fierce frown on her face. “It was like living in a nightmare. I never knew what was going to happen next…”

“What exactly was….”

“Oh, he drank. Among other things. I don’t know, I suspected that there were drugs involved as well. I’m very ignorant about all that. Things his friends said afterwards made me think…”

We were getting too close in to the island now – you could practically count the individual trees and I wondered idly if this was the sort of place the Canadians had bear alerts? I realised that we would have to go about. I waited for just the right moment, then I wrenched the tiller sharply across and flung myself over the cockpit to face the kingfisher sail as it came round. The Laser rocked slightly, then picked up speed again. Phew!

“Paul used to get drunk at work in the lunch hour – he ran a big store in Auckland, he’d go out for business lunches and come back to the office at three o’clock, paralytic.”

“That’s tough for you,” I said, tightening the sheet in my hand.

“Yes – I never got used to it, somehow.”

I hope she didn’t notice my smiling at that point – but there was something rather quaint about the way she said ‘yes’ as though it rhymed with ‘miss’ or ‘kiss’.

“You’d think I’d have known, wouldn’t you?” she went on. “Someone would have to bring him home, plainly. Usually the same man, an older guy. He was terribly tactful about it, and I just wanted to scream at him – for God’s sake stop being so bloody understanding!”

“I know what you mean.”

The sun was beating down on us now, hotter even than when we were on the beach, and it was getting in my eyes. I wondered what time it was – I mustn’t be late for the kids’ swim. We were going faster on this tack, I thought; but it was all right. Sometimes when you’re sailing, you suddenly get the feeling that you’re doing O.K.: all you have to do is gather up the sheet in one hand, and hold the tiller in your other hand, firmly but not too tight, and you just sit there, kind of listening to what is going on – where the wind is coming from, what the waves are doing. You look all round you, and watch, and listen, and somehow you just know what is the right thing to do next. The boat moves along under you, and it’s marvellous.

I looked across at Helen and grinned. “Want to take over?” I offered recklessly.

“Later. Not just now – you’re doing so well, Lewis!”

“How did your boys react, when… What you were saying just now, about Paul being brought home from the office?”

“Oh that was the trouble – I never knew how he’d be with Rob and Nathan.”

“How awful for you!”

“One evening he got hold of Rob’s train set – it was a real beauty, a wooden set carved for him by a woman in Auckland Meeting: Rob adored it! I suppose Paul realised that. He was jealous, in a way – this woman had been able to make something for his son that was much better than anything he himself could buy for the boys… Anyway he smashed it.”

“What!”

“He didn’t know what he was doing. At least that was what he said afterwards, when he was sober. He was desperately sorry, but it was too late then. Rob was inconsolable.”

Spray was blown across both of us in a sudden gust of wind; it had a sudden cold bite to it.

“So when people asked me how I was, I just didn’t know – sometimes I thought I was coping fine. Other times I thought the only thing to do was put both the boys in the car with me and drive it off the top of Mount Victoria!”

I glanced sharply at her.

“So I stayed away from Meeting so that people wouldn’t ask. I suppose you think that was silly of me – they might have helped.”

“No I wasn’t going to say that,” I told her. “I know what it’s like when things get in such a mess you can’t risk going to Meeting. Had you been going long, before all this?”

“Not long, no. I met Paul there, when I first worked in Auckland. I knew nothing about Friends before that. We had a Quaker wedding – I’m still glad about that, in spite of everything that happened afterwards. That was the odd thing, you know, Lewis…”

“Yes?”

“Even though I couldn’t risk going to Meeting, I felt that I had picked up their ideas. Sorry, that sounds terribly pompous…”

“No it doesn’t,” I said quickly. “Go on.”

“Well I was getting lots of advice from other people – women friends, my parents – and my solicitor, once I’d decided I would have to get a divorce. They were all saying, like, basically, screw him for everything you can get.”

“I suppose they would do.”

“But I couldn’t go along with that; it didn’t feel right, somehow.”

I glanced round as a small cloud drifted in front of the sun. Was the wind changing direction? It was hard to tell.

“It sounds as though you have come through, all of you,” I said, hoping this didn’t sound as trite to her as it did to me.

“I don’t know, I still worry about Rob and Nathan.” Then she laughed. “Do you know what we did, one day, Lewis?”

“What?”

“We caught the ferry across to Devonport and we walked up the hill to the very top, the boys and I. It’s quite empty and open up there, Lewis – there were no tourists about. It was winter, early in the morning. And we just stood there open to the sky and yelled!”

“Oh!”

“Filled our lungs and hollered as loud and long as we could! Nathan was the loudest. Does that shock you?”

“No! Of course it doesn’t shock me. It strikes a chord, that’s all: I did that myself, not so long ago.”

She was astonished.

Careful! I mustn’t say too much… “I went up to the top of Parliament Hill – I was living in London at the time,” I told her. “Parliament Hill’s a marvellous place – the highest bit of Hampstead Heath: you get a view right across London. I stood there all alone at dusk one day and yelled my heart out.”

She looked at me, and was about to say something when the wind suddenly dropped and the sail began to flap. Then the wind came again from a different direction – it didn’t seem to be able to make up its mind. Never let your sail flap – Cardinal Rule Fifty-three of How to Sail your Laser, according to her owner, my genial friend from Ottawa. Or perhaps it was Rule One? I struggled to pull the sail in tight – but then the wind dropped altogether.

“Oh look, Lewis – I’ve just noticed: aren’t we a long way out? Our little beach looks so tiny!” Helen renewed her grip on the mast. “When do we have to be back?”

Afterwards I could never remember what happened next. I suppose there must have been a sudden much stronger burst of wind which caught the sail as I pulled it taut. Maybe I shifted my weight too rapidly in response to this. I don’t know what Helen was doing. All at once I realised that the Laser was going to go right over.

I think Helen shrieked.

The scene went into slow motion as the tall mast tipped, the kingfisher sail taking all the time in the world to float gently – ever so gently – down to meet the lake. “Have a nice day!” I muttered under my breath. Some time later I found myself sliding into the water; it was like finding oneself unexpectedly in a warm bath.

*

That evening I sat at the wooden table near the huge carved totem pole at the top of the Camp – the highest point, from where you look down across the little cabins on the slope and over the wood beyond. In the distance the sun glinted on the lake, placid in the evening air.

“You O.K. now, Lewis?” Helen smiled at me across the table.

We’d changed out of our wet clothes, and Helen was in a green cotton frock which lay crisply across her knees. I’d dug out an old blue sweater of Ed’s which was just a little too small for me, but which hugged me comfortingly.

Beyond the totem pole a woman sat playing a guitar for the children, her neat frock folded beneath her, her voice firm and expectant as she led the singing. We knew her well – she was the grandmother of two of the families in Camp that summer. Nathan and Rob were at her feet with the other children, their eyes shining, joining in with gusto. They had not even noticed Helen’s absence that afternoon: we’d got the Laser afloat again and sailed her back just in time for Afternoon Swim.

“Sure, I’m fine,” I told Helen. “Though whether I shall ever be trusted to borrow that poor Laser again I very much doubt!”

The Laser had been reunited with her owner, who had reluctantly admitted that she had come to no harm which he could point a finger at, since we had not gone anywhere near the rocks. They make ‘em tough, these Lasers.

Helen turned to me now. “Will you tell me about Parliament Hill, Lewis?”

“What?”

I don’t usually talk about Edmund’s death. Not yet, it’s too recent. Not only that, but you never know how people are going to react when you mention AIDS. It gets in the way sometimes, stops them from listening to you, hearing where your words are coming from.

When she saw that I wasn’t going to answer her question at once, Helen began to talk some more about her former husband. “I loved Paul, you know,” she said quietly. “Even after everything… You don’t just stop loving a person, do you? Everyone tells you that you have to let go, but you can’t. I can’t, anyway. And he was worth loving! He was great, when I first met him… He had a motorbike in those days – he’d take me away for weekends on it. Oh, he was fun, Lewis! Once we went down to Rotorua – where you can bathe in the hot springs, you know? There’s this awful smell of sulphur everywhere, only you don’t notice it after you’ve been there half an hour. We never stopped laughing that whole weekend…”

“Yes we were like that too,” I said, and I did tell her about Edmund then. All of it: not just the last few months when we knew that he was dying, when we struggled together with frailty and pain and sheer exhaustion – but the rest of the story. I told her how I’d first met Edmund – how I’d noticed him one night at some concert the Quakers had organised: he was standing at the back of a small windband, blowing a great solid french horn as though his lungs would burst, his face red, his wild black hair billowing all over the place. He wasn’t a very big man – even then – and the french horn seemed almost too large for him to control. Then after the interval he volunteered to do a solo for us; he played one of Mozart’s horn concertos – brilliantly – and then he sang the Flanders and Swann song to the same tune, the one about the poor chap who gets his french horn stolen by a neighbour. I had laughed until the tears poured down my face; and it seemed that I had gone on laughing all throughout that kingfisher summer.

“You must have loved him very much, Lewis,” Helen said.

“Yes, I did.”

The woman singing at the foot of the totem pole came to the end with a rousing rendition of The Family of Man, and put her guitar carefully away in its case. The children began to drift away, and Helen’s two sons came running over to where we were sitting.

“Will you take us out sailing tomorrow, Lewis?” Nathan cried.

“Please please please!” his brother Rob added.

Helen laughed. “Remember what they say about getting back on your horse as soon as you fall off, Lewis!”

“Tell you what, boys,” I said after some thought. “How about if we take canoes out instead?”

*

Next day was even hotter, and by afternoon the wind had dropped altogether, so canoeing turned out a sensible choice. We let the boys share a canoe between them – I reckoned they’d be safe if Helen and I took a canoe each and kept close to them. It’s hard work rowing when you are out on the lake – much harder work than sailing, and I suggested that we should hug the coast and look out for a beach to land on.

We found a small beach a mile or so along from the Camp and pulled the canoes up on the sand. A stream flowed into the lake just there, and I suggested the boys might like to construct a dam. Mars bars discovered strategically in the pocket of my shorts facilitated this exercise.

I lay back on the sand and closed my eyes.

“What did you mean yesterday, Lewis, when you talked about a kingfisher summer?” Helen said. She curled her legs under her and sat looking at me.

I sat up.

“Oh just the way I thought of it, I suppose. Kingfisher was his favourite colour, that’s all – everyone used to tease him about how he wore it all the time. Shirts, sweaters – you know.”

“It suits some people,” Helen nodded. “What did Edmund look like? Dark hair, you said…”

“Yes, long dark hair! I mean, not long as in fashionably long…”

“No?”

“Long as in he couldn’t be arsed to go and get his hair cut when I told him to.”

“Which you did?”

“Frequently. Someone had to. He never was much good at taking care of himself…”

“How old was he?”

“Twenty-eight when he died.”

Helen said nothing for a moment.

“You’re good at taking care of people, aren’t you, Lewis?”

I shrugged. “You get used to it. People talk about the strain – the smell, that was the thing most people noticed when they came to see us. Towards the end, I mean. But I was just used to it: it was part of the background. Like you were saying yesterday about the smell of sulphur at Rotorua.”

Indeed the lingering scent of vomit, urine and wound dressings had become so much a part of me that even now if I happen to pass a dirty public toilet or the back room in a hospital ward and catch a whiff of something like it, then I am jerked all at once back to the months that Edmund was dying. But there were other smells too that year, and to change the subject I began to tell Helen now about Joan, a woman we knew from Meeting who had come to practise aromatherapy with Edmund.

“Oh that’s beautiful!” Helen exclaimed. “I came across aromatherapy in Auckland too. What oils did she use?”

“Her favourite with Edmund was a combination of lavender, rose maroc and geranium, mixed in walnut oil and monoioil. Joan made up the mixture herself. She taught me how to massage his hands with it.”

Edmund and I had sat together for hours, on the days when he’d been too weak to get up. I used to pour out a tiny measure of the precious oil into a little pale blue Chinese porcelain bowl and put it on the bedside table, then I would dip all my fingers into it and take his hands tenderly one by one and rub the oil in. As my thumbs eased their way round and round the palms of his hands, Edmund said it took away some of the pain and tension: I don’t know, but I hope it did.

“Have you still got the oil?” Helen asked. “I’ve been wondering where I could get hold of it but I haven’t had time…”

I told Helen that I still had half a bottle left – Joan had made me keep it after Edmund died, saying that she wanted me to have it for myself. “I’ve even got the little Chinese dish that Joan gave me to pour it in,” I said. “You can have some if you like… I haven’t touched it since Edmund’s funeral.” I laughed suddenly.

“What?”

“Sorry, this sounds ridiculous but I’m afraid it always makes me laugh, remembering Ed’s funeral. I’d better explain,” I went on rapidly. Often people don’t understand this: but I had the feeling that Helen would.

“He planned it in some detail, you see – we planned it together. Things like clothes – he said everyone had to wear something in kingfisher blue as a mark of respect. No one at all in black unless it was a colour that specially suited them, or that they liked: his fifteen-year-old cousin wore a long black skirt to her toes and a black tee-shirt, because… well, that was her, really. But she wore a brilliant kingfisher blue hat as well, to please Edmund: linen, with a wide brim…”

“Go on – what did you do at the funeral?”

“Well it was a party, basically. Lots of booze. Wonderful food. Singing. Recitation. We sang that Flanders and Swann song about the stolen french horn. And Joan recited the W.H.Auden poem that they had in Four Weddings and a Funeral… Do you know it? The bit about the stars not being wanted any more… ‘Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun…’”

“Oh yes I know it,” Helen said, and to my surprise she finished the verse. ” ‘Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can ever come to any good.’”

After a pause she smiled and asked, “What else did you do?”

“Well let’s see.. Someone read rather a nice bit of Joyce Grenfell about not speaking in a Sunday voice – just be the usual selves that he had known: I think we managed that! We ended up sitting on the floor round the fire at three in the morning with Joan telling us funny stories…”

There was much more I could have told Helen then. Parting from Edmund was hell at the time, and it still is. He was the anchor of my life, the compass points which gave a fixed bearing to everything else – more W.H.Auden of course: I tend to take refuge in other people’s words when my own thoughts hurt too much.

“I wish sometimes that I could have had something like that, you know,” Helen said presently.

“What, a funeral, you mean?”

“Well not exactly – none of us died, obviously – but all the same, a divorce is so messy…”

So, I thought, was Edmund’s dying.

“I wish,” Helen said. “That at the end of it all we could have had some sort of an event – an occasion – to commemorate it. A milestone. A serious time, with no quarrelling, no more dispute about whose fault it was, just the two of us – the four of us,” she added, glancing across to the stream where Nathan and Rob had constructed a pretty efficient dam with a waterfall in the middle, down which they were rolling a toy jeep. “Just an opportunity to acknowledge in front of all our friends that something was over. Something which we had hoped very much would work out, in the end simply hadn’t. I don’t know, that probably sounds crazy to you, Lewis.”

“Not at all,” I said at once. “I know exactly what you mean.”

*

I found Joan’s bottle of oil at the bottom of my suitcase that evening, and took it up to the top of the Camp by the totem pole. There was a cool breeze, welcome after such a hot afternoon. Helen and I sat facing each other across the wooden table, and I poured a little of the oil into the Chinese bowl.

“Shall I go first?” I said. Carefully I dipped my fingers in, and then I took Helen’s hands one by one and rubbed them. They were surprisingly large hands, strong and determined. As I rubbed, they grew gradually softer and began to glisten in the evening air.

“That feels wonderful,” she said. “Thank you, Lewis. Now it’s my turn…” She dipped her own fingers in the oil then, and with a great sweep of her hand she rubbed it firmly around my wrists and up my arms.