The towpath rose to a gentle incline as they approached the lock. Horizontal lines of red brick protruded from the ground, so that, back in the old days, horses would not lose their footing as they ascended. Jason could remember his father telling him this, years ago. It seemed strange because his father was never very fond of the canal and would certainly not want to visit it anymore. Jason had been walking for an hour with his girlfriend Ellie. From the train station they had passed quickly through the city, relatively quiet on an Easter Sunday, and then on to the towpath with its scattering of locks and bridges. The weather was pleasant, mild spring sunshine, and there was birdsong and the smell of cut grass.
Some weeks previously, Jason had cheated on Ellie with another girl. It was clear to him now that this had been a stupid thing to do. The girl was an acquaintance of Ellie’s and a blabbermouth. She had seduced him, he decided, for the purposes of gossip and scandal. Some people are just like that, Jason thought. They enjoy making a mess out of other people’s lives. And it had been an almighty mess, but he had worked hard to clear it up. Today, Ellie held his hand for the first time since it happened. Things were healing up. This was a time of rebirth and renewal. The blue sky said it all.
“I think I see your parents’ boat,” Ellie said. It was about a hundred feet away, moored on their side. Jason’s mother appeared to be arranging some flowers on the roof.
“Jesus Ellie. Don’t call them my parents. It’s my mum and Simon.”
“Yeah, sorry,” Ellie said, removing her hand from Jason’s in order to wave. She started running towards the barge. Jason’s mother stopped what she was doing and looked up. She was wearing tight blue jeans and a white polka dot blouse which Jason thought showed too much of her chest. Her curly hair was tied back. She smiled at them and hopped down onto the rear deck.
“Well, look who it is,” she said as they got closer. “How are you two doing?” Jean knew nothing about the recent episode and Jason was happy to keep it that way.
“Good,” said Jason. “The journey was fine.”
“I’m fine too,” Ellie said. “The weather’s so nice.”
“It is,” Jean said. “Just look at my daffodils.” She pointed at the pots on the roof.
“They’re beautiful,” Ellie said. Jean offered her a hand and pulled her up onto the deck. Jason climbed onboard himself. Then they went inside.
Jason and Ellie had visited once before, the previous Christmas, when the canal was frozen over and the boat caked in ice. Its interior felt cosy then – a little sanctum against the cold. Now the heat made it feel oppressive. Shafts of light shone through each of the porthole windows, making the dated furniture look gaudy. A rich meaty smell filled the air which Jason guessed must be the lamb roast. Simon was sitting at the table already. He nodded in their direction as they entered.
“Simon’s made dinner for us,” Jean said. “I hope you two are hungry.”
“Starving,” Jason said. “How are you, Simon?”
Simon shifted his weight on the bench and laid both hands on his soft stomach. He was a balding, sad-faced man in his late middle age who had lost all trace of the stolid handsomeness his mother had married him for.
“This boat is killing me,” he said.
Jason laughed but then stopped when he saw that Simon wasn’t.
“How’s the girl?” Simon said to Jason.
“I’m fine,” Ellie said.
Simon got slowly to his feet and straightened his trousers. “Let’s have some food,” he said.
Jean brought a lamb platter over from the kitchen. She laid it on the table along with peas, gravy and mint sauce. Jason offered to serve. He cut four large slices from the joint and distributed them onto the plates. Jean began to talk about life on the barge. She said that early retirement suited them both but that she needed to keep busy in whatever way she could. She had begun volunteering as a day-care assistant in the local hospice. This was news to Jason. Simon had finished all the work that needed doing on the boat and was “waiting for the next thing to come along”. These were Jean’s words, not his.
“And how’s university treating you both?” Jean said.
Jason didn’t answer.
Ellie said, “Yes. Lots of work, I suppose.”
“Not long to go now is it?” Jean said. “These three years have flown by.”
“Indeed,” said Jason. “We’re getting old.”
Simon looked up from his plate. “You tell me that when you’re fifty-seven and then I’ll believe you.”
“You’ll be dead, Simon,” Jason said.
There was silence.
“Would anyone like some more lamb?” Jean said finally.
“Oh God, no, thanks,” Ellie said, shaking her head. “It was lovely though. Thanks Simon.”
Simon mumbled something about it being dry.
“Go on then,” said Jason, though he didn’t want any more. He hacked off another chunk, dropped it onto his plate and smothered it in gravy. It looked like a hard lump of flesh congealed in brown blood and made him feel slightly nauseous.
“We’ve made up the bedroom for you two,” Jean said. “Simon and I will sleep in here tonight.”
“Oh, you needn’t have,” Ellie said. “I’m happy to sleep on the couch.”
“It’s no trouble,” Jean said. “We’ve done it before, haven’t we Simon?”
Simon said nothing.
Ellie brought her hand to her bottom lip. “No, it’s not that, it’s just…”
Jason felt he should explain. “Ellie and I aren’t sleeping together at the moment,” he said. He thought this had a bad sound to it. He’d only meant it literally.
“Oh.” Jean was momentarily stalled. “Oh I see.”
“Don’t worry,” said Jason. “It’s nothing serious. We wouldn’t be here together if it was serious.”
“Shall I ask the girl that?” Simon said.
“My name’s Ellie.”
“OK,” Simon said. “Has Jason been screwing around, Ellie?”
Ellie didn’t answer.
Jean said, “Simon please,” and folded her arms across her chest.
Simon looked back to his plate and shrugged his shoulders. “Sounds like your son’s been playing the field,” he said.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Jason said. “Don’t you dare accuse me of things you know nothing about.”
“Do you deny it then?”
“That’s not the point.”
Ellie stood up. “I think I’ll go outside for a moment,” she said. Jean looked as if she were about to say something but then didn’t. Ellie went up the steps and closed the hatch behind her.
There was a moment of silence.
Then Simon smiled and said, “I think you’re hiding something from us Jason.”
“I don’t want to hear anything from you,” Jason said. “I don’t want to hear anything from either of you.” He left his place and walked to the steps. “I’m going outside,” he said before leaving.
On the deck, Jason savoured the sensation of air, light and space. He could almost forget where he was and what he was supposed to be doing. There was no sign of Ellie. He checked the boat, front and rear, and scanned the towpath in both directions. He even looked, furtively, into the green murk that surrounded him on all sides. Nothing.
The sun had begun to set over the urban skyline that lay, silhouetted, in the distance. Everything was enveloped in a dusky orange glow. It had become cold, the nighttime chill of a cloudless spring day. And a strange quietness had descended. Even the birds had stopped singing. The evening stillness was broken only by the occasional chirp and the soft background whirr of traffic noise. Jason gazed into the water and saw ripples. They came in slowly at first, almost imperceptibly, lapping the stern of the boat and causing gentle undulations beneath his feet. It was some time before he noticed what was causing them. Way up ahead, the lock was leaking. He could just about make it out in the encroaching dark. Great streams of water were pouring from its wooden gate, surging through holes and cracks, cascading into the canal below. It was as if it were about to burst.