The Boating Pond

She thought of herself as unique. Not good unique, like a very rare butterfly, but bad unique, like a disease nobody else has or wants. At least that is what people at school seemed to think. No she didn’t wear glasses but she might as well have done so, as her clothes, mainly hand me downs, seemed to confer glasses to her face. She regretted that she wasn’t one of the feisty heroines she read about in books. Those Cassandras’ who set off with just a slice of fruit cake and a trusty dog to catch a villain who had alluded the grown ups. In the books, the dogs were called Timmy or Flash and were generally sleek Border Collies with intellects surpassing Einstein. Of course the Cassandras’ were accompanied by some smug James who had all the answers as well as a torch and a walkie-talkie. She qualified in one respect, as she could call upon the family pet, a brown and white Bulldog Boxer cross of intimidating weight and ugliness having inherited the worst physical features of both its parents. He was called Brut, after the deodorant, something he was occasionally needful of. Her escape from bookishness was her passion for model sailing boats. Coincidentally there was a model boating pond situated next to the library, thus she could indulge both her passions and take Brut for a walk on her Saturday trips to town.

One sunny Saturday, after an unsatisfactory spell in the children’s section of the library, in which she could find nothing good she hadn’t already read, she collected Brut from the library cycle racks, where he was eating a discarded lolly stick and proceeded to the boating pond. She carried with her a model sail-boat she had been working on for a month. A scale model of a C Class yacht that would have been the stock in trade in the 1920’s and 30’s. This would be its launch. The pond was an area once imagined as an ornamental garden in an oriental style but now gone to rack and ruin. It had gaudy flowers in military rows, over sized trees, copious brambles and damp rotting benches surrounding a large, perfectly circular concrete pond. A fading danger sign announced that the water was six inches deep at the edges increasing to three feet at the centre. Leaves and litter had filled the pond and the blue floor painted with incongruous waves was only visible if you stirred up the water and scraped away the algae and mud. Apart from the well-tended flowers it was a scruffy place with graffiti gracing the rim of the pond and broken slats on the benches.

On one of the benches a group of boys from senior school were sitting smoking. One of them had his shirt off displaying a skinny white torso and red shoulders. She recognised them from her own school. They had left a couple of years ago when she was nine. Naturally she had had nothing to do with them having no interest in boys of any age. Besides she was focused on the launch. After a drink from the pond, Brut melted like a giant vanilla and chocolate ice cream on to the concrete rim of the pond and she prepared the boat for its first voyage.

There was almost no wind but this was not a problem. She knew from experience that the centre of the pond attracted a breeze. If the very worst came to the worst and the boat became becalmed or even sank, Brut might be persuaded to ‘fetch’ although with some significant cost to the integrity of the craft. Paddling out to rescue a stuck craft was not an option, due to the depth in the middle of the pond. Given the value of the yacht in girl hours she determined to follow a cautious path and to launch it with a tow line attached ensuring that, should it become becalmed she could haul it back to harbour.

She placed the boat into the water and was pleased to see that it balanced well on the keel. She set the sails and the negligible breeze indicated a wind direction toward the opposite side of the pond. She duly unravelled a significant amount of line from the reel allowing it to float in the water and attached the boat to the line at the bow. She set off walking around the pond with Brut following. On the way she became aware of the boys. She resolved not to acknowledge them on the basis that boys were customarily indifferent to her, in fact most people were indifferent to her, so no matter. Arriving at the optimum point around the pond she began to reel in the excess line in readiness to tow the boat a few feet from the pond perimeter and then allow it to set its own course, hopefully over to her.

The boat responded beautifully to its newfound freedom. The large sails captured what breeze there was and it falteringly waltzed away from the edge of the pond. The drunken path of the craft would extend its journey time but satisfyingly it required no further tugs on the line to maintain a course that was, at least, somewhat in her direction. The meditative mood was heightened by the sunshine that in her mind transformed the local authority decay into a trendy marina of the Jazz age. She sat on the warm concrete next to a steaming Brut who had closed his eyes and was unconsciously and ineffectively jerking his leg in pursuit of imagined rabbits or real fleas. The boat continued its coquettish dance toward them accompanied by the fuzzy sounds of the high street and a rumble of chat from the boys who had now all stripped to the waist and lay in and around the bench like thawing fish fillets. The minutes slipped by as she watched and imagined piloting her miniature craft into the harbour at Cannes.

As it neared the centre of the pond a cloud slipped across the sun as abruptly as a camera shutter and the yacht stopped dead. This was the opposite of what she expected as the centre was the place least affected by the shelter of the ill tended trees. She prepared to wait some while, with the expectation that this was a temporary halt. She didn’t have a watch, but for boating she had endless patience. Tugging on the line would ruin the illusion of authenticity and would spoil the bed-time reflections that fed her very best dreams. The boat had managed fifty yards of genuine sailing and should be given the opportunity to complete the journey unaided. She resolved to leave it to fate and wait until either the town hall clock struck the hour or alternatively a motor horn was heard (in this polite market town an infrequent occurrence). Brut was leaning against her drooling and snoring but the darkening sky made her button up her cardigan. It felt like she imagined a lunar eclipse of the sun to feel. She had read about them. The changes seemed miraculous and unreal – too much too quickly for a summer afternoon. The minutes passed and the clouds continued to hang across the sun like mourning veils. They both dreamed, soaking up time wondering why the weather was so weird.

Just beyond the library the town hall clock struck four. The boat remained becalmed. The fates had made their decision but she felt a little nervous as she teased in the line. Like a fisherman she awaited the jerk as the yacht became a puppet and could begin its animated journey home. The dripping line continued to feed back onto the spool, occasionally tangling or dredging up weed. This had to be a meticulous process as she had unwound a copious amount of line to give the boat the freedom to improvise its path to shore. She continued to wind and unsnag for several minutes until, to her alarm, the end spun wildly, like the end of a film show at school. The line had worked free and the boat (the best she had ever made) was now stranded 50 yards out in the deepest part of the pond.

Till then she had forgotten about the boys but now her concern about a stranded model was subsumed by another concern. The boys were not that threatening, after all she remembered them all from school. She recalled one in particular who wet himself during an egg and spoon race when she was in class one. Now she was aware that she was a spectacle and that what ever she did to rescue the situation would be under their gaze. In the strange subdued light, their presence, sitting on the nearby bench, reminded her of the audience of parents at school plays. Given her reluctance to stand out in any way, she had been cast in non-speaking roles like third fairy or tree or peasant girl but still she was obliged to be on show and she hated it. Now she was in a position where both inaction and action would draw attention to her and her dilemma. She could neither move nor speak. Despite the enshrouded sunlight she felt a shaft illuminating her position at the centre of the stage. A loud car horn penetrated the scene.

Brut woke abruptly. One of the boys stood up. ‘He’s an ugly Brut,’ he called to her from the bench. To her his voice was like a prompt demanding the next line in a play. Mechanically and absurdly quickly she replied ‘His name is Brut and yes we know he is ugly.’ The boy didn’t respond but continued to walk toward her. She had intended to communicate indifference but was aware that the tone of her response was haughty, teacher-like. She regretted replying at all. The audience was shuffling now and she felt panic as this boyish form began to grow taller and more adolescent, engulfing her. She knew him. He was the wetting one. What were his intentions? She looked away trying to will this spectacle to stop. Maybe he recognised her and wanted to revenge the shame of his infant sports day debacle. Surely his intention was to humiliate her in some way, to show her off like the prize he missed out on. Maybe he just planned to push her into the filthy water. Maybe he wanted to drown her. She remained turned from him as he reached out a hand…

…but Jill, for that was her name, began to whistle. Not a tune nor a signal but something in between. Not a scream or an alarm but a sound so intense it blocked your ears like eyelids block your eyes. Brut turned up to her, his jaws set slightly apart as if he was in silent prayer. Together, and in a split second Jill and Brut pirouetted like figures on a music box until both of them faced toward the lost yacht. Her song spread across the pool like skin on hot milk. In the middle the sails of the boat abruptly filled, and from its sheets spun a white swan that flew toward the group on the shore. Slowly at first, then swiftly it drove forward, a bow wave spreading across the glassy surface of the pond forming a gaping fan or a jaw. Within seconds it was with them and Jill had lifted it up into her arms, wrapping it in her arms like a new-born baby.

The boy, who during the spectacle had left his hand outstretched towards Brut’s muzzle, allowed it to fall to his side and onto his crotch. The other boys had witnessed the spectacle in full. This gesture, his silence and the trickle of urine that now seeped through his fingers triggered an exeunt. Jill turned and watched as they pushed their way through the overgrown trees and brambles ripping their bare arms, poking their eyes and finally stumbling and squashing the meticulous rows of lurid flowers as they headed back toward the library, the high street and their safe little town upon which a radiant late afternoon sun now shone.

‘Come’ said Jill to Brut. She headed back toward the library carrying the dripping yacht. Brut sauntered behind.