I am almost an old man, thought Roddy Merchant, as he sat on the deck of the Betsy Sue, listening to the familiar interplay of the lapping of water and the creaking of timbers; to the squawks of seagulls and the half-heard conversations of the others on Blackford Wharf as morning slipped into afternoon. I am almost an old man, and it seems to have happened without my quite realising it. He took a sip of the strong tea he had convinced himself he liked, and wondered what the next step in the renovation of the yacht that (as he liked to tell people while preserving the necessary irony) he had rescued from destruction when it was about to go to the breakers’ yard. He wanted the yacht to be seaworthy, or at least be able to edge its way across a lake, and yet he wasn’t sure he wanted the renovation to be finished. It wasn’t exactly that he needed something to do, but he liked the thought that the Betsy Sue was there.
His daughter Susanne (had the name played a role?) did not say in so many words that she was glad her dad had found an interest in life after her mum died, but he knew she must have been thinking it. He smiled. She was a good girl. Took after her mother in being a bit of a fusspot, but took after her mother in having the kindest of hearts, too. She was a local GP, and none of her patients had a bad word about her. She looked a bit like Cora, too – taller, and with dark hair instead of fair; but the same soft hazel eyes and very slightly uneven teeth he was secretly glad neither of them ever seemed to have felt the urge to have standardised. She had suggested he might get a little dog. You knew you were getting old, Roddy thought without rancour, when people feel compelled to insert the word “little” before “dog”. But it wasn’t a bad idea. They’d often had dogs, and been devoted to them, but Meg the golden retriever cross (so not a “little” dog at all!) had passed away herself just as Cora’s illness was beginning to worsen, and he hadn’t got round to getting another one. Still, he mentally added a bright-eyed little terrier to a mental image of the deck of the Betsy Sue and it was one he liked. He had taken early retirement, but still did part time work as an unpaid legal advisor to the local Citizens’ Advice and he wondered how they’d feel about a little dog in the office. Or would it be better to leave him or her at home with plenty of water and the radio on?
“You were miles away there, Rod!” A familiar voice cut through his reverie about a hypothetical little dog. It was the local postman, Simon. He wouldn’t normally have done the run around Blackford Wharf, but a colleague had a family emergency and he was covering for him.
“What – oh, sorry, Simon!”
“No worries. I’m often in a world of my own, too. But as I am doing this part of time today, I thought you might like your post here rather than waiting until you get home.”
“Thanks, that’ll be fine,” Roddy said, “Though I bet it’s only bills!”
“Ah, now there you’re wrong,” Simon grinned, “Unless you’re getting your electricity from a firm in Australia!” He handed over a letter with an Australian stamp and an airmail sticker.
“Maybe you’ll be sailing there yourself, one day!” Simon said. “Have to be on my way now.”
Rod realised he actually had scratched his head, something he thought was only a turn of phrase used in books when folk were puzzled. Who do I know in Australia, he thought, putting on his reading glasses and glad he was the kind of man who carried them automatically even when he hadn’t planned on doing any reading. The address was typewritten, but on the back, by the sender’s address – it was in Melbourne – was a handwritten note asking if they would please return to sender if Mr Merchant was no longer at this address. Well, I’ve been at the same address for over thirty years, Roddy thought. Of course he knew that perfectly well, but sometimes it was a strange thought. It was as if he and Cora had moved in only last week, sometimes, and he could still hear her saying that she was in no hurry to remake the house in her own image – that was the kind of phrase she liked – but that suspended ceiling would have to go. Cora was a patient woman, and though she liked a cosy house, not over house-proud, but she had an aversion to suspended ceilings. Funny how you remembered such things. But for once, his mind was not primarily on Cora, and he was curious. He knew people in Canada and South Africa, but they generally communicated by email now (he had mixed feelings about that, but you had to move with the times) but nobody in Australia. Did he? Before he’d retired they’d had a temporary solicitor from Sydney, but it wasn’t likely he’d be communicating by letter.
There’s only one way to find out. That was a Cora phrase, and he knew it most definitely applied. He opened the letter carefully, but quickly, slicing the envelope (it was a fairly thick one, not one of those flimsy airmail ones) with a whittling knife that doubled up nicely as a penknife. He still wasn’t quite sure it was for him, though the name “Mr Roderick Merchant” was plain to see on the envelope. Roderick? Nobody “unofficial” called him Roderick, and though he’d loved his mother dearly, he did wish she’d been slightly less whimsical in her choice of names, though he admitted his brother Ulysses had probably fared worse. He never told lies, but if people assumed that Rod or Roddy was short for Rodney, he wasn’t in any hurry to inform them otherwise.
I’ve thought for ages before doing this and even now I’m writing it, don’t know if I’ll post it, though the fact you’re reading it proves both that I did and that it reached you. With most people I wouldn’t think of doing it, but you’re the kind of man who would stay in the same house for decades, and I honestly mean that as a compliment, for all I used to sometimes tease you about being a stick in the mud even when you were in your twenties.”
The Betsy Sue was still bobbing barely perceptibly in the smooth waters of Blackford Wharf, but it was as if she had given an almighty lurch and threatened to break free of her anchor.
The letter, like the address, was typewritten (well, printed out!), but he looked at the message on the back of it again and after more than 30 years he recognised that rounded hand that somehow managed to be slightly childish and sophisticated at the same time. He knew whose writing it was. He knew who had teased him about being a stick-in-the-mud. And he knew, without looking to the end of the letter and the signature – which he was oddly reluctant to do, he was one of those people who never succumbed to the temptation of peeking at the last page of a book – that the letter came from Araminta.
“Look, it’s up to you,” she’d said, as they ended up sharing a table during Freshers’ Week at the East Coast campus university where they had discovered they were both in the recently founded faculty of law. “If you really absolutely, totally, completely – listen to me, talking like a lawyer already! – hate your name then fine.” At that stage he was still sufficiently under his mother’s influence to give his full name without thinking sometimes, though always adding, “But I much prefer to be called Rod or Roddy. “I’m not going to make a massive issue out of it. But I reckon those of us who have unusual names should stick together. Let me tell you, anyone who calls me Minty,” (she pronounced it as if it were a recalcitrant pet rat) “isn’t going to get an answer, or not the one they’re bargaining for.”
It would be fair to say that Araminta Worsley wasn’t to everyone’s taste. He had often thought – though never told her as much! – that “Marmite” might be more appropriate than “Minty”!
Some were of the opinion that she was an arrant snob. Roddy didn’t think she was, not really, but he could also understand why others did think that way, and he couldn’t attribute it all to inverse snobbishness or say she meant it ironically. When he heard her say, without an ounce of malice, that instead of going to Oxford or Durham, or the like, but had decided to “slum it” he wanted to scream, “Araminta, you’re not doing yourself any favours!” But quite apart from (he might as well admit it) not quite daring to, he also knew it would be counter-productive. She gave every impression of not being interested in doing herself any favours. Whether it was her idiosyncratic style of dress – he had seen others wear an Arab scarf, or a puffball skirt, or moon boots, but not the three together – or her tendency (early impressions proved correct) never to use one word where five would do, or her contradictory self-proclaimed feminism and contempt for the politically correct (he wasn’t even sure if they’d started using that word then) Araminta didn’t intend pleasing anyone but herself.
He had seen another side to her, though, one he could never quite make out if she wanted others to be aware of or not. He knew that when a very shy and nervy girl called Ella had ended up having a culinary disaster and fled from the communal kitchen in tears as her creation exploded in the oven she had calmly ignored the others’ frustration and annoyance, made Ella a cup of tea, and seen to cleaning the oven herself, with extreme efficiency. When he had missed a lecture because he was stricken with a particularly nasty bout of gastric flu, she had photocopied her own notes for him. And that was in the days when most people still called them Xerox machines and they were both few and far between and expensive. He never asked her to – she just did it. She could also be surprisingly self-deprecating. When he was struggling to find something tactful but truthful to say about her less than successful attempt at dyeing her hair red she gave one of her expansive gestures of dismissal that she was obviously perfecting for the courtroom, and said, “Don’t come it, Roderick. I look like a jellyfish that’s been in a car crash. God knows why Anne of Green Gables couldn’t just be glad she was a natural redhead!” He wouldn’t understand the literary reference until he was the father of a daughter himself, but thought there was something very endearing about her reaction.
Funny that had occurred to him now:
“But you were a good sort, Roderick. I remember how you went to such lengths to be tactful about the hair disaster when we were first years. You’d have to laugh now – because I AM a redhead, though still not a natural one of course. But I realised several years back that in the first place I was probably going to grey early, and in the second place my particular shade of grey was going to be more dead gerbil than silver, so I did something about it. Or more to the point, Tonio did. He’s my hairdresser and a treasure. But don’t you get ideas about cougars and toyboys! He bats for the other side as we used to say and anyway, I’m not a cradle-snatcher. More one for the older man. I used to deny to the rafters (have I just invented a new phrase there?) that I had a crush on Dr Philips, but perhaps I did, even though I knew nothing would come of it. But I did marry an older man, and he was wonderful, and a million times better than I ever deserved, and no, that isn’t false modesty, you know that’s not my style. And now I’m a widow. To this day there’s something about that word that still sounds old, isn’t there?”
And about the word widower too, thought Roddy.
Their mutual friends (they did have a few) could never quite decide whether Roddy and Araminta had dated, had been an “item” or not. He supposed they weren’t even sure themselves. There was certainly an attraction. It would have been easy to speak of the attraction of opposites, and it wasn’t wholly untrue, but not the “whole truth and nothing but the truth” either. He came to realise that she had a thoughtful, even a brooding side, and that her dislike of the phrase “Penny for them” wasn’t just petulance. She told him quite frankly, “You have a lovely zany sense of humour, you know, Roderick, it’s not very often I revise my opinion, but perhaps you’re not a stick in the mud after all! Or not all the time!”
They both loved Italian food and liked to pretend that they were among the elite few who had discovered the Trattoria Torino on the back street by the bingo hall in town, though the fact they offered student discounts rather gave the lie to that. They shared a love of folk music and impatience with those who stereotyped it as “ear-cupping strummers of three chords.” One November evening they went to a concert where one of the performers did, well, cup his ear, and didn’t even need to catch each others’ eyes in the smoky pub (this was decades before the smoking ban, and Araminta indulged in an odd Consulate Menthol herself) to know their shared thought was “Let’s hope none of the sarky squad are here!” But he could, undeniably, play considerably more than three chords!
“Was it just me, or was there something a bit unreal about suddenly realising that we were final year students? God knows we were lucky then, we didn’t know we were born compared to students now, it’s not brilliant here and I gather in the UK it’s worse. No fees, full maintenance grant, even for posh kids like me, though I think you suspected all along that though my folks had a big house and I had a plummy voice, and Mummy still used phrases like “county family” we weren’t exactly rolling in it. To paraphrase Dickens (and I’ve always thought his openings are better than the rest of the book) it was the best of times without being the worst of times, wasn’t it? Oh, it wasn’t without its shadows. Though there was a nice new leader in the USSR the Cold War was still chilly, and there were those public service commercials about AIDS that were enough to give anyone nightmares. But I don’t think any of us really wanted that time to end, even if we didn’t come out and admit it. We’d been having a kind of extended childhood with some cider and sex thrown in, and within a few months, then a few weeks, though we could still have the cider and the sex, the childhood would be over.”
Araminta’s family might have fallen on (relatively) hard times, but still had useful connections, and her father found her a pupillage in a local law firm. Roderick went home for the time being (as he thought) too, and also found a place in a local solicitors, though one with considerably less oak panelling and still using carbon paper.
“We promised to keep in touch, and we meant it, of course, but you know as well as I do that though I suppose it’s not unheard of for a student friendship to carry on unabated, most don’t. But I still have the Christmas and birthday cards you carried on sending me for ages. I even took them out to Australia with me when Ian got a job out here. I wish you’d known him and I wish I’d known Cora better. We’d planned on having quite a big family, but it didn’t work out that way. We only had the one son, Edwin, but we couldn’t have wished for a better one, and that’s not just maternal pride. I freely admit that at times in his life he’s been a pain in the posterior. Takes after me, I suppose! But he’s turned out beautifully. He trained as a nurse, and now he’s head of the surgical nursing team at one of the biggest hospitals here in Melbourne – quite an achievement considering he had a mother who suffers from terminal squeamishness!”
That’s not quite true, Roderick thought with a smile, remembering the business with the oven. But maybe there was a difference between that and bodily matters!
“Anyway, to cut a long story short, though that’s never been my style, as it seems, by some almost miracle, you are reading this letter, I’m coming over to the Old Country, as some people here still call it, though there’s a host of “old countries” here and that’s one reason I love this city. Edwin has been invited to a friend’s wedding. I wish he’d settle down with a nice girl – woman I mean – himself, but I’m not going to risk getting his back up by labouring the point. He asked if I’d like to come along, and I’ll admit I was quite flattered and touched he wanted his Mum along for the trip. Would you be interested in meeting up and having a chinwag about old times – but hopefully not just about that! I presume you’ve joined the techie age too, and my email address is here to get in contact more quickly.
Well, I’ve droned on enough, though if you remember anything about me it will be my capacity for droning on, and oh, I now have a bit of an Aussie twang!
Lots of love whatever you decide.
Araminta (Brookes, nee Worsley!)
Though he wasn’t an impetuous person, he emailed her back straightaway, thanking her for the letter, and saying he would love to meet up. It was a rarity in itself for him to email from his phone. Susanne had given him a smartphone for Christmas last year, but it never seemed quite right.
One thing he did know, or was as good as sure he did – he would like to renew his friendship with Araminta, but friendship would be as far as it went. It would be good for their children to meet up, too.
As so often, his thoughts turned to Cora. She had, for the most part, better taste in literature than he did, but also had an unashamed weakness for doctor-nurse romances.
Now you really are being a silly old man, he told himself.
He would make sure the Betsy Sue was looking at her best for Araminta and Edwin to see her!