…above us only stars
“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs,” Henry went on, continuing a conversation of which he felt to be an integral part.
However, everyone else had stopped behind Smith, who was struggling with the pink plastic canoe, but eventually got it up onto his shoulder, the paddle in one hand, his other hand clutching at the air for balance.
Smith now walked with a purpose of someone who was unlikely to lose his head, despite whatever might be happening around his head or whatever might be happening inside his head. With single-minded determination he lugged the plastic canoe across the three lanes of stalled traffic, one end of it scraping along the footpath once it had slid off his shoulder again. This was with the same single-minded determination with which Smith did everything, brushing his teeth, stirring his tea, scratching his head, pushing the plastic canoe into number 25 Railway Street that morning, knocking over two cups of cold black coffee, waking everyone up, eating two bowls of bran flakes, tearing curtains from windows and tugging dust laden Venetian blinds up and away, getting everyone out into the back garden and delivering a sermon, one foot on an upturned mop bucket – “If you can dream,” he began. He ended with the same single-minded determination, rounding his speech off with “meet with triumph.”
And so they were off: Oscar, Smith, Henry and Helen, off to launch Smith in his small pink plastic canoe on the Ship canal, a plastic canoe with none of the properties one would expect of a ship-canal going vessel. The likelihood of disaster was what spurred them all on, apart from Smith, who would have been determined to make his dreams a reality, were he ever to distinguish between the two in the first place.
“It’s pretty choppy,” Helen said, when they reached the waterfront. The water slapped at the slime covered bricks several feet below them.
“It’s two miles into town,” Oscar told Smith, adopting the tone of someone who knew what he was talking about, though not feeling at all the impostor. “That’s a stretch for one man in a canoe. Do you think you’ll make it?”
Smith, who never had the least intention of making it all the way into town, now confirmed that he could, that he would, and that he wouldn’t stop until he got there.
“I’ll bet twenty you never make it,” Helen said.
“I’m in for some of that,” Henry added.
“Me too,” Oscar added.
Considering these offers for the briefest of moments, before accepting them with no thought to anything other than making a heap of all his winnings, having transformed three twenty pound notes into a glowing mass of gold coins, Smith rubbed his hands together and nudged the canoe towards the six foot drop into the canal.
“I’ve tried this before at the water sports centre,” Smith said. “But they weren’t having it. I’m afraid an illegal entry is my only option. The water was higher the last time I was here though.”
“Tides,” Henry said.
“Canals don’t have tides,” Helen said, though she didn’t adopt the demeanour or stance or look or anything else of someone who was about to debate anything, let alone whether canals have tides; she looked more like someone who had no awareness of canals, of tides, of Henry or of the words twittering around and about her. It was as though she was dredging up long forgotten words up from a distant and painful past, and coincidentally these words coincided with a conversation which was taking place near by.
“Where do you think this canal goes?” Henry asked, his questioning glare sweeping the three stood in front of him as though they were his students. Anyone? Anyone? “This is a Ship Canal. It’s little more than a river. It’s a man made river. Up to two hundred feet across. Built for the big ships of the time. Big ships. Huge. Sailing down this river. And where do rivers go?”
There was no answer from his class, who all stood there with looks of varying levels of disinterest.
“The sea. Rivers flow into the sea. The sea has tides. The water goes up and down. Waves. That’s what waves are. Water pushing itself up the beach and estuary. That water pushes the river water up and down. Up and down. The water in the Ship canal goes up and town. It’s tidal.”
The canoe was in the water and Smith was climbing down the ladder to the water by the time Henry had rounded off his lesson with a self satisfied grin.
Smith was putting his heart, his every nerve and sinew, into this enterprise though he had yet to cast off, yet to get into the canoe. He could barely keep the canoe in reach with the paddle. When he next managed to pull it near he lunged for it. Then there was a drawn out period of action, struggle, and failure. Pitch and toss. Smith starting again at his beginnings. Breathing heavy words about his loss. Holding on when there’s nothing in him. Except the will. Will. That’s all he had. And it got him this far. As far as him straddling the canoe two yards away from the paddle. The paddle was all too soon three yards, four yards away from him. It was, everyone present would freely admit, floating away from him.
“Tides,” Henry said, looking down at the scene as it unfolded. “Where does that current come from if not from tides?”
“It’s gravity you idiot,” Oscar said. “Rivers flow down hill.”
“It’s a canal,” Helen said. “Canals don’t flow. They’re flat.”
“It’s a ship canal,” Henry said. “That’s a whole different ball game.”
Smith paddled with his hands in order to steer the canoe about and make his way towards the paddle.
“Hold on,” Helen offered by way of advice.
“Don’t sink it.” Henry had advice to offer too.
“Use you legs,” Oscar offered. “Splash with your legs.”
There was little chance of Smith catching up with the paddle, which was by now picking up speed.
“The unforgiving minute,” Henry said.
“Town’s the other way,” Helen said.
“You’ve got to go up hill,” Oscar said.
“Against the current,” Henry said. He could sympathise with that – swimming against the current. “Like a salmon.”
“Like a salmon,” Oscar said. “Like a salmon.”
Helen joined in with the call for Smith to emulate a salmon, but their was little chance of his succeeding in such, what with him straddling a pink plastic canoe, his feet in the water, his hands desperately slapping at the water’s surface, and his paddle floating further away.
“Yours is the earth…” Henry shouted after him “…and everything that’s in it.”
Oscar and Helen nodded their agreement. Smith had paddled himself into a current and was about to be taken somewhere.