On A Boat
“On a boat?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“A wake, on a river cruise, with an open coffin …?”
“Well, it was more like a party than a wake.”
“A wake is supposed to be a party, silly; a celebration of the dear departed’s life.”
“Well, I’m sure he enjoyed it.”
She shook her head. “Harold, he was dead.”
“Yes, I know; but we all have this thing … you know, imagining what it would be like to look down and see all of our friends weeping, distraught at the loss of a friend.”
“Everyone hated him.”
“Yes, I know, Siobhan.”
“You said the boat was packed?”
“Fifty had to be turned away.”
“I don’t understand?”
“An ad in the Star Observer saying it was a free cruise and clothing was optional?”
“Oh … if I’d known that I would have gone myself, just for the scenery.”
“Men only, I’m afraid.”
“What did you wear?”
“Black. It was a wake after all.”
“So, you didn’t go with the optional clothing choice?”
“Well, let’s just say my outfit was double-sided sticky tape and two black buttons …”
She laughed. “He was such a character; always surrounded by so many friends.”
“Surrounded by people—few were friends. He was rich. There were always plenty of guys about. Some really liked him but eventually he drove them away. He said to me when he was in hospital the only way he could keep people around him was to trap them somehow … so they didn’t get to escape.”
She blinked three times before responding. “Then it was your idea?”
“He left no particulars in his will, just naming me as executor to distribute his wealth as I saw fit. I arranged the wake on a boat so there would be a hundred partially dressed men, unable to get away, milling around him, having fun.”
“But, Harold, all those freeloaders responding to the ad in the Star Observer? None of them knew him.”
“Oh, there were several of us there who’d known him for years. We sat in the bow section and swapped a few salacious stories.”
“I bet. Care to share?”
I stopped her as she reached into her handbag for her notepad.
“Not this time, Siobhan. The air was thick with dirty words and vulgar stories that don’t bear repeating; the more we drank, the more indiscretions, and lovers, were revealed.”
“Now you’ve got me really interested.”
She signalled to the waiter she’d like another; I passed.
“He gave a lot of money away at the end.”
“Well, I did, as executor … to a deserving person.”
“Well, I’ll give you a clue …we’re partying at the official opening of the café of the man who inherited all of his money.”
The waiter arrived with her drink and then handed me a pile of invoices to sign.
“Thanks, boss,” he said.
Her eyes bulged.
“Care for a trip to Italy, Siobhan? I’ve always wanted a summer house in Umbria.”
We stood, perched on the edge of the cliff. To tell the truth, it was more a high embankment than a precipice. However, from where we looked, the raging torrent below seemed as distant as if we’d been peering into the caldera of Vesuvius from its rim.
“Must we swim?” my young companion asked, peering anxiously at our guide.
“Indeed we must, young master.”
“How powerfully the seething waters heave! Is the pounding maelstrom not telling us to keep our distance?”
“You must take courage, Henry,” I said. “It is a beautiful and terrible thing, and should therefore be treated with great caution.”
“But, sir, what if there are hippopotami or other great reptiles? Crocodiles and the such?”
“They’d be hard pressed to live in such confusion. They prefer calmer waters.”
“He’ll be safe, sir,” our guide said. “Although you and I have done this many times, he’s never done anything like this before.”
“Yes, I understand, Mwbawah; trepidation is to be admired among the very young. It’s foolhardiness that leads to disaster. Master Henry is unaccustomed to the challenges of the darkest Congo. It is his first expedition “
“But I shall prevail, sir!”
“Indeed you shall, Henry; I have every faith in you. Shall we pray before we leap into the roiling foam?”
“I’d prefer not to. Praying would indicate we need succour from the Almighty to survive an expected disaster. I have every faith in you, sir; I am aware this is not your first crossing of the mighty Wazasi River.”
“What’s it to be then, eh? Will you go before me and after Mwbawah, or would you prefer to wait until we have reached the small island in the centre and follow on after?”
Our guide fired his hand cannon, launching a grapple-hooked harpoon into a dense stand of tall figs that covered the islet. He tugged on its attached rope, and content it had secured purchase, removed his clothing, and then tied the end of the rope around a sturdy, nearby tree. He dived into the water with a loud, triumphal shout.
Henry gasped, clenching his fist to his mouth at every sudden immersion of our guide in the rolling torrent, clapping his hands as Mwbawah’s head reappeared but seconds later. Eventually on the island, our guide beckoned us to follow.
“Are you ready, Henry? Shall I go first, or shall you?”
“I’m ready, sir,” my young companion declared, stripping off his clothing and leaping precipitously into the water. He struck out furiously and in no time joined Mwbawah on dry land.
“Come, sir!” he called out. But I shook my head, laughing softly.
Our mighty Wazasi? The gently flowing Trent, in Dorset. Mwbawah, our native guide? My butler, Harold. And me? An old man in a wheelchair with more money than sense. Our Congo? My garden, and practice field for Henry’s adventures abroad.
And Henry? My son, a would-be David Livingstone, bound for the shores of Africa on the morrow.
God Speed, my boy!