by Pem Charnley
Helen walked in front of a lorry at two in the afternoon and was killed instantly.
“I’m just going out for some cigarettes,” she’d said, coming through to my study. I could smell the gin on her breath. She’d relapsed two weeks before; prior to that she’d been going to AA and I’d begun thinking there might be some hope after all.
She left behind not just me, but our son, Charles, then aged ten. There was grief, of course, though there was also… well, a certain sense of freedom once the shock had eased and Charles could now have friends round without getting embarrassed. For his seventh birthday party, Helen had fallen down the stairs as the guests arrived.
Soon after her death I decided we should move, I didn’t want Charles growing up where they’d scraped his mother off the high street. We headed to the coast and rented a flat, where I was close enough to the university to still give the odd lecture. From our new lounge, there was a view of some nearby docks, and within the first week, Charles had become fascinated by the ships. We’d not been there long, when one afternoon he asked me to choose my favorite freighter.
“I’m choosing the Hoopride,” he said, “because of her wooden bridge and old-fashioned superstructure.”
He added that she was one of the smaller ships to use the port and this proved she was a brave vessel, weathering seas other ships found easy. Charles was insistent, said I could look out for my chosen ship, see how often it used this particular port. I already kept a logbook for him of all shipping movements, using my binoculars each high tide as they docked and writing down their names and ports of registration. If the ship docked during school hours, I’d tell Charles in the car on the way home, and once back, he’d dart into the lounge to read the updates.
I was worried about his shyness, though. He wouldn’t say hello to any of the other boys in the town, and I remembered Helen had been mute without a drink inside her. If he was on the beach kicking his football around and saw them approach, he’d come back indoors to watch from the window instead. When I said he ought to go back out and join them, he’d say he didn’t feel like it. Certainly the boy had courage. At low tide, the estuary revealed rocks that led round the cliffs to a nearby beach and Charles was like a mountain goat leaping between these rocks, displaying an agility and fearlessness I was proud of. But so withdrawn… I was told by his teachers he was the same at school and I was beginning to find this frustrating.
Well, following Charles’s demands that I choose a freighter, I settled on the Bobrix, a ship registered in Hull. She’d arrived three days earlier from Rotterdam with a cargo of cattle feed and was leaving on the outgoing tide that afternoon.
“Why have you chosen her?” asked Charles.
“Because it’s the first ship to pass our window since you asked me and therefore meant to be, don’t you think?”
“Do you like her superstructure?”
“Yes, I do.”
This seemed to satisfy Charles.
As the Bobrix edged past our window and out to sea, I saw a light snow settling upon the green tarpaulins secured over the holds. The sea was flat and the water appeared almost black. We watched her slowly becoming smaller, then with dusk approaching, I drew the curtains and lit the gas fire.
“I’d better think about your tea. Beans on toast OK?”
“Can you cut it into squares like Mummy used to?”
“I always do.”
Charles returned to his drawing pad. He’d decided he was joining the merchant navy and drew nothing but ships. He’d get his ruler, draw two parallel lines across the page, add a bow and stern, and that was another hull designed.
“What shall I draw?”
“The Bobrix, please.”
“I did her the other day.”
“What about a yacht?”
“No, they’re rubbish.”
He decided to sketch an unladen supertanker, high in the water and with the bulbous bow clear to see. There was a picture of a tanker in his geography book at school and the teacher hadn’t known why vessels had these misshapen bows. Charles explained that they gave additional stability, so Mr. Wills asked him to come to the front and tell the class more. Charles didn’t want to; there was nothing to add anyway, but up he went.
“They just add stability.”
“And you’re just like Prince Charles,” said Mr. Wills. “You don’t know what to do with your hands when addressing an audience.”
When Charles told me what Mr. Wills had said, I was furious and wanted to phone the school, but Charles began crying and begged me not to.
After he’d eaten his beans on toast, I reminded Charles it was Sunday and therefore his bath night. Once he was in the bathroom and I could hear the taps running, I poured myself a scotch. What a treat it still was to be able to drink in the house again. I decided to catch up on the news and settled down in front of the TV.
The local news followed. The top story was the Bobrix listing dangerously twenty miles off the Cornish coast.
The newsreader continued, “The British-registered vessel is understood to have begun taking on water soon after leaving Fowey, and with the engine room now flooded, power has been lost. A helicopter from RNAS Culdrose is on its way…”
I went down the hall and told Charles.
“No way!” he laughed, adding, “Daddy, I think you must be cursed!”
“I think I must be.”
I left him to finish washing his hair and returned to the lounge. When Charles had got into his pajamas and come back through, I asked him to start putting away his things. There was Lego scattered over half the carpet, along with his sketchbook and crayons, toy cars…
“What happened to the Bobrix? Did she sink?”
“There was no more news… Only that a helicopter was flying out. If I hear anything later, I’ll come through and tell you.”
“I heard you the first time.”
“Can’t I wait up?”
“No. Just a few more days till the end of term. Let’s keep the nights early, please.”
I went through to the kitchen and poured myself another drink. I considered making a sandwich, but decided to have one later on. Charles had made little start on his tidying, and coming back through, I trod on one of his toys. It was a Royal Navy frigate; I don’t know how I hadn’t seen it, it was large enough. I looked down at this thing lying on its side, you could see the tiny wheels on its base that made it easy to push along.
“What kind of fucking boat has wheels, anyway?”
I kicked it hard, not thinking in which direction it would go. It was made of metal and banged against the grille on the front of the gas fire. Charles was on the floor nearby. He didn’t say anything, he just stared down at the carpet, red with shame, and began putting his Lego back in the box.