© Clare London
“What?” I twisted back sharply to face the barge, and my foot slipped six inches down the grassy bank. I struggled to regain my balance. I was gripping a damp plastic bag of sausages with one hand and the rusty old portable barbeque with the other. Which to let go of first, if I fell? An intriguing, philosophical debate, to consider the conflict between the need for physical safety over the need for …
I huffed and came to a shaky stop.
Laughter floated over from the roof of the boat. “What are you rambling on about, man? You pissed already?”
In the dim light of dusk, it took me a moment to focus my aggrieved protest in return. Ned was standing on the roof, balancing rather precariously, waving down at me. No, he wasn’t waving, he was swinging something.
“Not pissed,” I said. A girl’s voice from inside the cabin laughed in a very mean-spirited way.
“You’ve forgotten something,” Ned called to me.
I was distracted. This was an important project. Right? I was Mr. Important. Me. Responsible for Maslow’s basic hierarchy needs, setting up base camp for the night and barbeque-ing and … stuff. But I seemed to be missing some vital parts of project equipment, like charcoal, tongs – oh, and the grill thing that slots on the top to hold the meat. I didn’t have time to swap careless lover’s banter with Ned. Even if we were … well.
Seems I hadn’t had time for that, either. To let him know I was interested. Very interested. Sleeping in the next bunk and rocking beside him all night while he snored and stuck his bare leg out from under the sleeping bag cover, interested.
It was a great leg. Muscle and skin and hair and … just great. Went right up to his arse, in those tight trunk-y things he wore. The leg was one of a pair, too, of course.
“What’s that about my leg?”
“He is pissed.” Susie clattered up from inside, bumping against the door, making the boat sway. She was clutching two bottles of red wine to her chest like she’d found the Holy Grail and no one short of the Green Knight was taking it away from her. “Rob can’t take his drink. He talks to himself. Drops stuff. Makes passes at my boyfriends.”
Oh God. That was only the once. I’m pretty sure…?
Ned was laughing again. “If you’re having trouble setting up the barbeque…”
“I’m fine.” I felt very hot. Flushed with embarrassment, probably. Maybe he never heard Susie’s comment. Right. Maybe my name was Gabriel and there’d be a choir of angels coming from the cabin instead of Susie’s Abba hits volume 2.
“Summer holidays,” Susie muttered. “Bloody summer holidays. Rains all bloody week, then the one night we can have a decent outdoor barbecue, Rob’s pissed on cheap cider, Ned’s doing some kind of bloody druid impression, and Mel and the others haven’t been seen since they lost the windlass at the last lock.”
I pitched a sly look at Ned, and found him still smiling at me. I sucked in my belly, wished for more than a two-pack, and grinned back at him.
“Still feeling queasy?” He grimaced sympathetically. “Takes some getting used to, being on the water.”
“Four miles an hour, that’s all. Canal holiday, not James Bond through Venice in a speedboat.” Susie was still muttering, struggling to get the cork out of one of the bottles. Her hand was shaking. Now I remembered, she’d been on the cider as well. Something about an argument earlier in the day with Mel about Joe. About best friends stealing boyfriends. Or the other way around.
Three people were coming up the towpath. My cousin Ed was waving a windlass above his head like a victory salute. Joe was carrying a bag that looked heavy and clinked most hearteningly every time it bumped his leg. He was walking less confidently than Ed, appearing to concentrate really, really carefully on each step. People would probably call it weaving. I remembered there’d been a couple of pubs back at the lock. Several pints and a carrier bag of off-sales can do that to a man, of course.
The girl between them just looked wet.
Susie stood up abruptly and the boat rocked. She looked furious. “They made Mel go in after it! Bloody men.” She started scrabbling over the side on to the bank, to join the others.
Ned winked at me. “Best friends forever, argument forgotten,” he mouthed, tilting his head in Susie and Mel’s direction. At least, I think that’s what he said. He has a soft spot for Susie and her volatile lovelife. Wish he had one for me. And that it wasn’t soft.
Well, you know what I mean.
I felt hot again. The bag of sausages shifted, feeling cold and slimy on my arm, even through the plastic. My feet were slipping back down the bank.
“Rob?” Ned was waving that thing again. He winked at me. “I’ll come and give you a hand in a minute. Know what I mean?”
I didn’t, not really. I wasn’t sure what was so wink-able about setting up a barbeque. I didn’t go through all those years of further education to have to struggle with a lump of inanimate metal. As if it sensed my disdain, the barbeque scraped against my hip. I let it slip to the ground, its legs shaky on the sodden grass.
I checked it over, peering, frowning. Yes, I was definitely missing the grill thing. I looked back up at Ned.
“Christ, you are pissed, aren’t you? All the better for me to take advantage of you later.” The boat was still gently rocking from when Susie had climbed out.
“Is this something to do with who gets to empty the chemical toilet again?”
He rolled his eyes. That, or my vision had skewed again. “You’re an arse. I’m talking about giving you a hand. And you me. In other ways. You know.” He glanced over to where the others had nearly reached the side of the boat. Susie and Ed seemed to be growling at each other. Joe was smiling at everyone and also no one in particular. As I watched, he slid his arm around Susie’s waist. Mel was gazing at Ed with admiration, albeit damp.
There didn’t seem to be any conflict any more, I had to say. Alcohol had some surprising medicinal qualities.
“You and me,” Ned said, rather impatiently, rather nervously. Maybe I was hallucinating but he definitely still seemed to be looking at me. “Getting together. I mean, I’m tired of waiting for you to make a move. I’ve always fancied you, and you stumbling around the boat at night in your boxers does nothing for my nerves…”
“And socks,” I muttered, confused. Sometimes I put my fleece on as well if it was cold. Didn’t everyone?
“Rob!” He was angry now. “If you’re not interested, just say. And when they drag my humiliated body out of the canal you’ll try to remember me fondly as a mate who took that one step too bloody far…”
“No! I mean, yes,” I said, rather faintly. Please. Whatever he suggested, it was always going to be “yes”, right?
Ned grinned, his eyes shining in the diminishing light. “So now you’ve worked that out, what about the barbeque?”
Now I could see what he was holding out. The grill thing.
“Catch!” he called. He pulled back his arm.
“No!” I gasped.
Further up the towpath, Susie yelled back, “He drops things, remember?”
I never got the chance to catch in the first place.
It was like one of those slow-motion scenes. Susie and the lads started to run the final couple of yards to join me, their arms waving. Mel squelched along behind them. Ned flung the grill out towards me and the bank. I slid down the grass, scrambling to reach it in time, knowing in my gut I wouldn’t.
Ned’s expression twisted in surprise as he realised how much lighter it was than he expected. I groaned as I realised just how much slower I was in soft-soled boots and with sausages under my arm. And Mel stopped running, just stood there, dripping, and watching as the grill made an impressive trajectory but stopped a foot short of the bank.
And fell in the canal with a splash.
“But what about supper?” came Ed’s aggrieved voice.
“I’ll get more beer,” Joe said, still smiling, still holding Susie close, looking around as if an off licence would suddenly appear on the banks of the canal like Brigadoon.
“Mel’s not going in the canal again!” Susie snapped.
Ned started laughing, and so did the other lads. So did Mel. Eventually, even Susie did.
Cost of more alcohol? Most of our budget, but surely a justifiable expense. Cost of an alternative evening meal of cheese, biscuits and chocolate? Petty cash, i.e. what was left in Joe’s pockets after buying the alcohol.
And sitting on the deck with Ned’s arm round my shoulders and a happy, mostly drunken grin on my face for the rest of the holiday?