In town, it’s been a crisp, clear autumn day. Now it’s teatime. Aboard the bus home I check my phone for football results and lottery numbers: ‘7, 10, 12, 14, 23, 42 and the bonus ball is 39’. I crumple up my ticket, wait until I’m home and chuck it in the wheelie bin by the front door.
Inside, the house is hushed. It is as though seventeen years of dust have settled on all the surfaces, making everything soft and still.
I pull off my shoes and socks, sink my feet deep into the carpet. It immerses me in the warmth absorbed from sun rays streaming through the window since late morning. I crouch down to feel it through my fingers. It is beautiful. I feel gentle gravity hugging me close and lowering me to the floor.
The warmth soaks through me and brings restful peace. I slowly roll over and stretch out. By finding a cat’s favourite place, I have become feline.
Lotto’s favourite place is at the back of the boat, right above the engine on a dark wooden step. It stays toasty even after the Man has tied up. And when they are travelling the steady chugger-yugger-chugger-yugger vibrations ease her to sleep.
Of course if the weather turns bad she just pops back through her cat-flap into the galley where there are other, sheltered, places to hunker.
The Man has to stay outside, travelling from village to town to pubs alone in the marsh, whatever the weather. He has gigs to play, school classes to take, singing groups and instrument workshops to run – all at reasonable hourly rates or payment in kind.
At each new venue he jumps off, ties up, turns the engine off, extends the tarpaulin over the cockpit and mops the deck. He shuffles backwards round the boat, occasionally propping a long wiry leg on the cabin roof for support, wiping away his own footprints along with the leaves, muds and bird shit of the day.
Lotto doesn’t approve of this cleaning up but for now she is too busy rubbing against the food cupboard to care. After tea she reverts to her outside-self, “the girl I’ll never know” the Man calls her, and stalks water voles on the bank.
Ducks quack loudly and frequently. One sets off another that sets off another in a volley of alarm shots echoing across the water. Lotto stops prowling and sits openly in the moonlight glaring at the noise around her. She gives up hunting for the night, does a quick circuit of the boat – leaving muddy paw-prints behind her – and pops in through her cat-flap
The Man has lit the paraffin heater. Lotto curls up in front of it. Her golden brown fur glows in its flickering light.
Next day, the man rises early. He rolls up the tarpaulin, switches the engine on in neutral and gives it time to warm up, unties the cold dew-soaked ropes – first the stern rope to let the ebb tide swing the boat round, then the bow rope – and scrambles back into the cockpit.
He pulls the gear stick back to reverse away from the bank before turning the wheel to port and pushing hard forward. Once the boat straightens, the Man reduces the RPMs to slowly pass sleeping yachts. The engine splutters and struggles upstream at first but soon slips into a reliable, if syncopated, rhythm.
The river snakes its course through the marshes. Reeds appear to close in at every bend, forming a barrier to progress, only to open up just wide enough for the Man to steer through.
Remains of wind pumps, sails long gone leaving forlorn brick stumps, emerge through the morning mist. They seem many and all surrounding, like a lost army rising from the marsh. In fact they are few and lonely. The same ruins are seen to port, starboard, fore and aft according to the ever shifting perspective of the river’s coils.
For an hour it feels like no progress is made – just reeds, mist and ghosts coming round again and again. But eventually the river straightens. The reeds are cut away on one side to reveal moorings, gardens and houses. And there is a low railway bridge ahead. The Man revs up the engine for extra control through the fast-flowing channel beneath the rusty, riveted structure.
The village is stirring from its slumbers. A car, lights bleeding into the mist, tip-toes along the quayside road. Hopeful ducks set off from the bank to greet the boat, but soon return empty-bellied.
At the end of the village, after all the cosy cottages and floral shops, there is a boatyard. It has an empty hull hanging from a joust, clear of the water, like a corpse displayed at medieval city gates to warn would-be traitors and social malcontents. The Man smiles to himself and pats the wooden dashboard reassuringly.
Now he feels a fresh sun on the back of his neck. The mist lifts quickly and Lotto emerges to bask in her favourite place. The Man pushes the gear stick forward and the engine purrs into a smooth, comfortable rhythm.
There are still quite a few miles of slow river to the city. But they have the best of the day to see them there.
In the early evening, the Man squints awkwardly into the low autumn sun and makes his way through the busy streets. He carries his guitar by a shoulder strap and a bag of shopping with his other hand. He avoids eye contact with all the people heading home, worried they’ll be annoyed by his large, slow presence. But no one pays him any attention. He’s just another obstacle to navigate and they bustle past on autopilot.
It’s not a gig night and it’s too late to busk safely. The Man’s guitar has a cracked bridge – a delicate wound that he doesn’t want to open up any further. His eyesight is not all it was and he doesn’t trust himself to mend it properly. But it’ll be a simple job for the busy, chain-smoking instrument maker and the Man can collect it the day after tomorrow. In the meantime he’ll have to live on fiddle music.
The Man steps back onto the boat just as fat drops of rain start to fall. He puts down food for Lotto, who weaves in and out under his feet until the moment her dish touches the floor, and then starts cooking up a chilli from the contents of his shopping bag.
Minced beef is browned. Chills are sliced, with seeds kept in, and fried. Cumin, garlic, two tins of tomatoes and a little salt are added. It starts to cook up nicely. The windows steam up, making a cosy cocoon inside the boat. He tips kidney beans into the pot and lights the oven to warm flat-breads He tastes the sauce – good, needs a dash of tabasco – perfect, and plenty for three meals at least.
There’s a loud clatter on deck and the boat rocks. A splash of the chilli sauce scalds the Man’s hand and runs up his sleeve. He swears under his breath.
“Hello,” a woman’s voice calls loudly through the opaque window, “anyone home?”
The Man turns the gas off.
“Hello,” the voice rises slightly, concerned, “are you there?”
“Is who there?”
“You of course,” the Woman laughs, “can I come in?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m cold and lost innit. It’s raining. It’s really horrible out here. Yeah, and the man in the Indian shop said you’d help me.”
“You bought some chillies and stuff. He said you’d help.”
The Man goes out into the cockpit and unzips a flap in the tarpaulin.
The Woman is soaked. It has been raining hard. Her tightly tied hair is beaded with droplets. Her thin face is tired and smeared dark around deep, resilient eyes. She is wearing a pink tracksuit, tight around her large pregnant bump. And she is shivering. The Man lets her in.
“Ooh its cosy here innit. What a lovely little boat! And you’ve got a cat. Ah, he’s lovely.” Despite being much smaller than the Man, the Woman seems to fill the boat. Lotto retreats into a corner.
The Man hands the Woman a towel and asks, “how can I help you?”
“Aren’t you going to offer me a cuppa?”
“Do you want a cup of tea? And how can I help you?”
“Ta, yeah. And I’m lost. Supposed to be meeting Husband by the bridge.”
“Well, it’s the one near where Husband works. Industrial estate innit. But I got a bit lost. Took the wrong turn, ended up out by the ring road, didn’t know which way I was going, ran out of pavement, had to walk back, phone died, pissing down, ended up crying in this shop. And this nice Indian says to ask the Man with the guitar who lives on a boat. He’ll help. So yeah, here I am.”
“And he told me how to find you, innit. Didn’t get lost this time. Is that the chilli you’re cooking? Smells lush!”
“It’s not ready yet,” the Man shakes his head, “but I’ll make you a cup of tea.”
“Oh well never mind. Not hungry anyway. Should be. Been walking for ages and I’m eating for two’n’all.”
The Man makes her a mug of tea. And the Woman sits still, rubbing her fingers together to draw Lotto nearer. Lotto ignores her.
The Woman turns back to the Man, “thanks for the tea. Can you tell I’m expecting?”
“Yeah, it’s kinda…”
“Obvious innit,” she laughs, “and yeah, I’m about 28 weeks so no changing my mind now. But I gotta eat more. Husband keeps telling me, ‘you gotta eat more Woman’. Due in early January can you believe it?”
The Man shrugs and hands her a mug of tea.
“Ooh it’s hot. Ta. That’s nice. Yeah, a millennium baby. How exciting. A brand new millennium boy. Husband is happy as a pig. And yeah, I’ve seen the scans – his little willie all tiny and harmless like a little bean.”
“Where does your husband work?”
“Discount Chandelry. You know it?”
“Had to get one or two things from there in the past. Is that where he is now?”
“Well should be innit. But frankly who can tell with him. He’s expecting me to call but I can’t. Probably sat by the phone getting all worked up.”
“Who’s your husband? The Nigerian guy?”
The Woman shrieks with laughter, “Tony? God no. I should be so lucky! He’s a perfect gent. Fit too!”
“The old guy?”
“No, no. Tim is gay. Well I think he is. And if he isn’t, he must be my grampa. Husband’s 24, so yeah, not much older than me.”
“Oh, the guy with the baseball cap? Spreadsheets?”
“Yeah, that’s him. People call him that.”
“Don’t like it.”
“And you’re married?”
“Well, no but,” she looks down at her bump, “nearly. Wasn’t planned. Not by me. But it’s okay, it’s fine.”
The Man goes back out into the rain, rolls up the tarpaulin, turns on the engine, unties and sets off. Lotto stays below deck, in the dry, beside the Woman on the bed. She inclines her head and sniffs cautiously at the Woman’s fingers, warm from the mug of tea.
The security lights on the industrial estate have become magnified pools in the rain, flooding out across the grey sky, cascading over dark corrugated roofs. The light-bulb inside Discount Chandelry – Unit 27a – barely registers in comparison.
“Thank God. Thank God,” repeats the Husband over and over, his deflated cheeks refilling with colour, “Thank God. I heard it on the radio that a woman was found in a car park. They found her body. It sounded like yours.”
“Was she pregnant?” asks the Woman anxiously.
“Dunno. Didn’t say. She had dark hair and make-up and a tracksuit. And I was scared my love, scared. They don’t know who she is. Want someone to come forward. Who is she?” he pauses to collect himself as tears start to well up, “Who is she? I was asking myself that. And I was thinking it was you my love, you. And our little boy. I was so scared. It’s not your time. But I was thinking maybe God’s made a mistake. Maybe he’s got his dates wrong like me with those cabin hook orders. Filled in the wrong column. Thought we’d run out when we never. Oh thank God.”
“I’m still alive sweetheart. I’m fine. We’re together now,” reassures the Woman, lightly stroking his sweaty, trembling hands, “this gentleman helped me.”
“Did he?” the Husband’s voice catches in his throat and he gulps, “I kept ringing you and ringing you…”
“Oh, I know. My phone died innit.”
“Stupid mobile phones! They never work when you need them. Not ever when you need them to. I was scared my love.”
The Man slips away back to his boat. As he pushes off from the bank, the Woman runs after him with a slip of paper, “take this. Thank you. You’re a gent.”
It’s a money-off voucher – ‘the great millennium bug give away, buy while you still can’ – valid until January. The Man is about to crumple it up, he has no need of new things for the boat, when he notices handwritten numbers on the back: ‘7, (11), 12, 14, 23, 42, 39’.
It’s time to return. The Man quickly folds up the piece of paper and tucks it into his inside pocket, out of the rain.
The following morning, it is hard to see anything through a thick bank of fog smothering the river. In midstream both banks are hidden. The Man follows close to the starboard bank, watching carefully for underwater chains protruding from the factory wharfs.
Sharp, icy droplets laced with acrid mint and mustard fill the air. They sting the Man’s throat, sinuses, lungs. And cling to his face in a freezing mask. This morning, it is hard to breathe.
The growling of city traffic reverberates through the fog but routine shouts of annoyance and impatience are muffled.
Upstream the river heads out into the country. Wooded now, not marshy, but dripping with moisture as if someone is squeezing each moss-coated branch like a sponge.
Briefly the fog parts as a little wind blows. A long ribbon of rooks fly over. They are going downstream to the sea. It will be low tide in a few hours and the exposed beach will become a feast for hungry birds whose usual fields lie hidden. The breeze passes and the fog returns.
It is a slow but necessary voyage. And it ends as it has to at a lock with a sign: ‘No Motor Cruisers beyond this Point’. The Man leaves Lotto curled up asleep on the bed and walks across a footbridge to a steep, narrow path.
Steep and slippy with leaf-mulch. But as he slowly ascends from the valley, the Man emerges through the fog into a clear, crisp day.
The churchyard is not far from the newsagent’s. The Man finds his faithful boots dry and clean in the church’s entrance porch. He sits at one end of his bench, boots tucked behind his feet, and waits. The air is cool but there’s no chill.
“Mum said you were back, dunno why,” the Lad sits down at the opposite end of the bench.
“Just got back a couple of hours ago,” acknowledges the Man, “she’s smart, your mum.”
“Yeah, she’s alright.”
“I got your ticket.”
“Where, where was it?”
“It’s here,” the Man holds out the lottery ticket.
The Lad grabs it, clutches it and hunches over to read the numbers to himself. And reads them again and again, slower each time – turning them over in his mind.
“There was another number,” explains the Man, “a seventh number out of sequence. 39.”
“39! Thought so. I know what the numbers are.”
The Lad moves into overdrive, swipes and taps urgently at his phone, drums his fingers impatiently as the app loads and then types: ‘71112142342’.
The Man shuffles sideways toward him, peers over his shoulder at the screen.
Numbers split apart. The Lad grabs them one at a time, pinching and dragging, putting them in order. He right swipes several times until they’re in the right format: ’23/12/74 – 21/1/14′.
“He was 39 you see. Born 23rd December 1974, went on 21st October 2014. So in lottery numbers you get 23, 12, 7 cox 74’s too big, so then 42, 11 and then no zero cox it can’t be a lottery number, so then 14,” the Lad sits back, remembers and smiles, “dad loved his number games. He’d love NumbaGram. Thanks for the ticket, churchyard Man.”
“Glad you like it,” nods the Man, “I bought my boat with a lottery win.”
“Nice one,” the Lad nods back, “I’ll let you know what I get. What’s your number?”
“Haven’t got one.”
“I’ve got to go now. Lotto can always tell when it’s her teatime, she’ll be getting restless. Good luck. Be wise,” the Man picks up his boots and heads back down to the river.
She’s right. It is teatime. For a moment I sense a faint purring in the air around me and the velvet touch of a paw on my arm. I run my hand through the carpet.
The room is cool now, warmth lost to a darkening sky. I get up, leaving a temporary warm imprint where I’d been lying, and draw the curtain for the night.
My phone lights up. There’s a text: ‘5 nums! mum 🙂 & dad went 20/10 not 21/10 so cant be ur falt 😉 Got £s 4 nu stone. LYLAB’.
I don’t understand it completely but enough for it to make sense to me. Water is coming to the boil for macaroni. I grate cheese and soon I’ll melt butter in a pan, ready to stir in some flour, milk and a pinch of mustard.
This story is a sequel to boots.