by Helen Yendall
“Not that one,” I said firmly, as the boatman pointed to a narrow boat at the end of the pontoon.
He scratched his beard and frowned. “You said you wanted a small one, lady. And that’s the smallest we’ve got.”
He reminded me of my dad: gruff, but with a kind twinkle in his eyes.
Freddie, my youngest, who was all kitted out in his pirate outfit, pulled up his eye patch. “But I like that boat, Mom. It’s red!”
Sophie pulled a face. “We are still going, though, aren’t we, Mom? You promised..”
“Yes, of course,” I said. “It’s just – “
I’d spotted the boat’s name, painted in bright blue letters on its side, as we’d walked through to the boatyard from the car park. It had jumped out at me, bringing on that now familiar twist in my heart and threatening to ruin the day.
The boat was called ‘Sally-Ann’. What were the chances of that? It was the name of the woman Mike had had an affair with; the woman he’d left us for. The reason for my divorce.
I forced a smile. “Do you have another one for hire? If it’s not too much bigger, I’m sure we’ll be fine.”
I wasn’t sure at all but I couldn’t let the children down. Not now. The boatman nodded and we followed him along the towpath.
“Mom, is this our summer holiday?”Sophie asked.
“Not exactly,” I said. “It’s more of – an adventure!”
“Yeeees!” Freddie raced ahead, waving his foam cutlass and making me wince as he veered close to the edge of the water. I wanted to tell him to be careful but managed to resist. After all, wasn’t this what today was all about: having fun? I didn’t want to spoil it.
We stopped next to a barge that, the boatman confirmed, was only a foot longer than the first. It still looked the size of a blue whale to me but I nodded quickly, before I lost my nerve.
Mike, my ex, had always been the one in control, the one to make all the decisions. Some people – like my dad – thought he’d been too controlling.
If we went anywhere, Mike drove. On the odd occasion that we had a barbecue, Mike had been in charge of lighting it. Mike would have steered this boat, no question.
But Mike wasn’t here anymore. And if I didn’t do it, no-one else would.
“I’ve never been at the helm of a boat before,” I admitted, as we were kitted out with life jackets.
The boatman winked. “You’ll be fine. You’ll only be doing three miles an hour.”
I nodded. “Well, I can drive a car and I used to drive my dad’s old tractor as a teenager. How hard can it be?”
He smiled. “That’s the spirit!”
I’d spotted the signpost for the marina on our way to visit Dad on the farm the previous month. The kids had been through a lot recently and a day trip on a barge would, I reckoned, be fun.
Freddie’s latest obsession was pirates and the sea and as we lived nowhere near the coast, a canal and a diesel-powered barge was the closest we could get.
The boatman patiently demonstrated the throttle for going forward and the tiller for steering.
“Push it the opposite way to the one you expect. To the right, to go left and to the left, to go right.”
I nodded. I’d learned to expect the unexpected recently. After all, Mike’s decision to leave had come as a bolt from the blue.
Oh, I’d known we weren’t particularly happy. There were constant rows and tears but we were muddling through. Wasn’t that what most people did? But then Mike announced he’d met someone else – ‘Sally-Ann’ – and that he was leaving.
The boatman started the engine and amidst whoops of delight from the kids, he steered us out of the marina and under a narrow stone bridge.
As we emerged into a sudden burst of sunshine, he hopped off, onto the towpath.
“There you go then,” he said, without looking back.
We were on our own.
“There aren’t any locks, are there?” I yelled but he’d gone. The narrow boat wobbled as I grabbed the tiller and a few yards later, we’d bumped into the grassy bank and stopped.
“You’re not supposed to go into the side, Mom,” Freddie called from the front.
Sophie tutted. “I knew we should’ve brought Grandad.”
I shifted the gear lever into reverse and we gently moved backwards, away from the bank. Then I straightened the boat up. “There,” I said, feeling suddenly more confident. “Full steam ahead!”
Even Sophie stopped frowning as we glided through the water and a family of moorhens and then some ducklings, bobbed past.
It was unexpectedly beautiful. There were rolling green fields on both sides of the canal and the sky was a cloudless blue.
It was so quiet. So peaceful.
I breathed out and felt my shoulders drop.
We chugged along for another half hour, only passing one other boat. The couple on board waved back at us until they were just a dot in the distance.
“They were nice,” Freddie said and I nodded. People, on the whole, were nice, I reflected. People had been so kind, since I’d told them the news about Mike.
As we rounded a bend, I spotted a pub at the water’s edge and a man standing on the bridge.
“Hey!” Freddie called. “It’s Grandad!”
My dad came down onto the bank to meet us. “Here, Sweetheart, throw me the rope,” he called and then he looped it over a metal hoop.
“What’re you doing here?” I asked.
He looked sheepish. “Well, you said you were picking the boat up at ten, so I thought I’d come and meet you.”
“And see how I’m coping?” I said, laughing.
He lifted the kids off and then held his hand out for me. We’d never been a family that hugged and kissed but he squeezed my hand as I stepped onto the bank.
“She did OK,“ Sophie said. “You were good, Mom.”
I ruffled my daughter’s hair. “Well, don’t speak too soon. We’ve still got to get back to the marina!”
Dad looked at me. “You looked firmly in control to me, Lou.”
We turned towards the pub.
“Kids, do you want your usual lemonade and crisps?” I asked. “And a small beer for you, Dad?”
“We didn’t like the first boat but this one was better,” Freddie was saying.
Dad frowned. “What was wrong with the first one?”
I shook my head. “I didn’t like the name.”
“And have you seen the name of this one?” he asked. In all the rushing around at the marina, sorting out a new boat and life jackets, I hadn’t noticed.“It’s ‘Lucky Lady’,” he said. Then he lowered his voice. “You can steer your own boat from now on, Lou.” I nodded. He was right. Being divorced, with two kids wasn’t going to be an easy ride, but I could do it.
I put my arms around my children. I hadn’t seen them smiling like this for a while. The sun was shining, the water was sparkling and I was with the people I loved.
I am a ‘lucky lady’, I thought. A very lucky lady indeed.
Helen shares, “Although the story is fictional, I think I understand something of my heroine’s predicament. I got divorced in 1997, after a (long!) relationship that went wrong within a few weeks of the wedding. Building up my confidence again and realising that, actually, I was more capable than I imagined, was all part of the recovery process.
“Now I live in the English countryside with my new partner and a cocker spaniel puppy and life is good – and busy. I teach Creative Writing, I work for a children’s charity.“