Flurries of snow fly on the cutting wind, crossing the canal where narrowboats lie at rest in the ice. A girl walks along the towpath. The wind cuts through her thin clothing like razor wire, blueing the skin of her legs. Her cap is pulled tight down covering her ears to keep them warm. She is walking head down against the wind, her hands stuffed deep in her jacket pockets. So cold is this girl that her toes hurt. She was walking along the towpath looking for somewhere to get out of the cold, an old shed or an empty boat maybe. She thought she could prise off a padlock in a cheapo hasp or she might unzip a cratch cover and climb in out of the biting wind. Either way it had to be soon or she would die of 'hipofermia' she thought. She could see a light in most of the boats and chinks in the curtains revealed people sitting in front of warm fires. This made her feel colder. She came to one boat in darkness. She looked around as she unzipped the cover and stepped inside.
Even though it was the same temperature as out on the bank she felt warmer out of the wind. She made herself comfortable sitting on a pile of wood. Peering through the glazed door she thought she could see a red glow. Then it disappeared. Placing her hand on the glass she felt the warmth of the inside. Someone would be back soon she thought. She turned to open the cover and the door quietly opened.
A soft voice spoke, “It’s cold out there, you had better come in.”
She started, “ I am sorry I was cold,” she said.
"It’s OK, come on in,” said the voice, “Oh! I’ll put the light on.”
He stepped back from the door and ‘click’ the whole room was illuminated. The voice stood there back from the door by the fire that was the red glow she had seen. He was a middle-aged man clean-shaven greying hair and a smiley face. She looked around. It was small and tidy. Not quite what she expected. She was still on the front deck looking in.
“I am sorry if I startled you. I was dozing in the chair,” he said.
“I was cold,” she said, “I wasn’t gonna steal anyfink”.
“No I don’t suppose you were,” he countered, “Come in I wont bite.” He beckoned her.
She ducked in through the door, standing on the top step of three. She looked around like a cat in a trap. To her left was a cabinet. In the corner stood a guitar in a case then a small table. Next to that two bookcases. A coal scuttle sat against the wall near the fire which was central across the boat. Then there stood the voice in the entrance to another room. Coming down the other side were two chairs and another cabinet matching the one on the left. She stepped down and stood for a few seconds taking it all in, then turned and closed the door.
“Come sit down by the fire and get warm, “he said backing into the kitchen. “Do you want something to eat or drink?”
“It’s no trouble I was going to make some tea. I also have some fruit cake.”
“OK,” she said, “Fanks.”
He lit the stove and filled the kettle. She thought it odd he did it this way round. She unbuttoned her jacket and made herself comfortable in the warmth of the room.
“Why is it so warm in here?”
“Because of the stove.”
“But you are sitting in icy water and its snowing outside?”
“Yeah but the boat is well insulated and the cold doesn’t rise. It is cold at the back.”
He looked at her through the galley door. She was thin, blonde and short, quite tiny in fact. Eleven or twelve? no more. She had no boobs.
“Why are you out in this cold?”
“OK you don’t have to answer.” He finished with the tea, cut slices of cake and brought it through to the front end placing it on the table.. He sat in the chair next to her. “Have you warmed up yet?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Do you live ‘ere on ya own?”
“Yes. Just me and the dog, Muppet.”
“Muppet,” he said, “she is in the vets tonight.”
Oh, she’s poorly?”
“No, just being spayed.”
She looked at him quizzical.
“Doctored to have no puppies.”
“She will be home tomorrow.”
She looked around the room.
“Why do you have so many books?”
“I am a writer. I need to see what other people are writing.”
“Oh what do you rite?”
“Novels, children’s books, poetry. I am writing a play at the moment.”
“I wish I could write.”
“You probably could.”
“Yeah, but what would I write about?”
“Write about what you know.”
“I don’t know nufink!”
“You have a life write about that.”
All the better,” he said, “it wouldn’t be interesting if it was all twee.”
“It’s true ordinary lives don’t make good reading."
Got up had breakfast got dressed for school went to school saw my mates
went home had dinner went to bed.
“It’s so boring.”
“Yeah but my life isn’t interesting.”
“Really? All life is interesting if you write it properly.”
‘It was 7.30 when I awoke. I was scared. It was late Mum would be mad. I dressed as
fast as I could and raced down to breakfast. Mum screamed at me. I gulped down my
breakfast, grabbed my coat and school bag. I slammed the door as I left the house and ran up the road.’
“You see suddenly it’s interesting. Why were you scared? Why did mum scream at you? Why did you feel the need to dash out to school? The reader wants to know.”
“Oh I see. So ordinary peoples lives can be made interesting.”
“Yes you need to write the story so the reader wants to turn the page to see what happens next.”
“Even if your life is mundane it can be made interesting. I bet you could write about what bought you here tonight and make me want to read it. You could write it down or you could speak it out loud its up to you.” He reached to some notebooks on top of the bookcase. Picking out a new one he passed it to her. “Here take this, you can try writing about things.” He gave her a Bic.
“No not if you don’t want to, but when you feel you have something to say. When you write things down no matter how bad they may seem it gets easier to understand.”
“But you know how these things work I don’t.”
“Ah, but I didn’t. I used to be like you. No I didn’t at all. Just getting started was difficult. All you need to do is just pick a time to write about. Maybe some incident that you remember. You can write a beginning later, just get the main bit down first. Starting in the middle is ok I do it all the time.”
“I can’t do it now.”
“I am not asking you to. Just take the book and write when you have something to say. If you like you can come back here and we can discuss it.”
“Would you do that for me?”
“Yes for a while. I will be here in the ice for a few weeks. Now would you like me to walk you home?”
“No I don’t want to go back yet.”
“Your parents will be worried.”
“Nah I don’t fink so! Me dad will be at the pub and mum is round her mates house.”
“So there is no one at home?”
“No I usually get me own dinner then watch tele till they get home and I get to bed before they start shouting at each other…and me. It’s never any different.”
“Well what are you going to do?”
“Can I stay here a bit longer please?”
“Yes OK. Would you like to have some more cake? My name is Max, what’s yours?”
“Nice. Do you want to talk about why you were out trying to find somewhere to be out of the cold?”
“Not really! We had a row, mum and dad were shouting as usual and I asked them to stop behaving like kids. Dad slapped me across the face. That hurt. I told him I would fone child-line if he slapped me again. Mum told him to stop and then she shook me and said if I did she would make my life a misery. Like it isn’t a misery already. I don’t remember the last time we went to the cinema or somefink like that. I put me coat on and ran out of the house and here I am.”
“Oh so not a nice time then.”
They sat eating cake and drinking tea. It was late when once again Max awakened from his nodding off and Jeneana was gone. One page of her notebook was on her chair. On it was written:-
Quietly the girl arose from her chair and left, the man did not awake.
Max read the note and smiled. She was an interesting character. He collected up the crockery and took it to wash up. He was tired, setting the fire for the night he went to bed.
Back at home Jeneana snuk into the house and crept up the stairs. Her mother came into her room. “Where do you think you’ve have been ‘til this time of night young lady?”
“You are too young to be out this late.”
“I don’t do it every day.”
“We were worried.”
“Yeah I can see!”
“Don’t do it again!”
“Or what. Will the big man slap me again?”
“I didn’t say that. He didn’t mean too, he had too much to drink!”
“What like he didn’t mean to yesterday either, or the day before……”
“He doesn’t want to hurt you.”
“No neither do you, but you do. Time and time again. You always make excuses for him. He is a grown man and I am a child it’s not fair. You are supposed to care for me but you take his side every time. He’s not even my dad and even if he was he shouldn’t touch my knickers.”
“He shouldn’t touch my private parts.”
"You liar! How dare you say such nasty things.”
“Its not a lie. He often comes in my room and touches me its not right!”
“YOU LITTLE TART, HE NEVER DOES ANY SUCH THING!”
“Yes he does, only you don’t care enough to see!”
With that her mother swung a huge slap across her face sending her flying onto her bed. Jeneana resolutely refused to cry.
“Oh look you hit me. Well it’s not like it happens every day is it. Oh wait , yes it does!”
“Don’t you be so cheeky little miss or so help me I’ll ……”
“You’ll what? Slap me again? That’s original.”
“Just wait till your father gets home.”
“He’s not my father. You pushed my father away. He would have cared.”
“If he cared where is he? He pissed off like all the rest.”
“At least he didn’t touch me like all the others did.”
That hit mother hard. “Like all the others, what all of them?”
“Yes. Every single one of them.”
“You’re just saying that to hurt me!” The tears began to well up in her eyes.
“Mum every single one of my ‘uncles’ put their hands in my knickers, every one of them. You were always too much in love to see.”
Her mother turned round and left the room. Jeneana could hear her sobbing, but she didn’t feel sorry for her. She had suffered long enough herself to be bothered how her mum felt now. She was getting into bed when the front door opened and her ‘dad’ came in.
“You dirty bastard!!!” she heard her mother say.
“You bin touching my kid!”
“I haven’t. She’s a liar. I just cuddle her sometimes.”
“Oh you cuddle her with your hand in her knickers do you. Strange cuddle that.”
“She says you do!”
“Honest we just have nice cuddles.”
“Not anymore you don’t!”
Jeneana heard this going on and waited for the foot steps on the stairs.
“I want you out of this house. NOW!”
“I’ll go in the morning.”
“You’ll go now!”
“Can’t we talk about this Mel?”
“No think yourself lucky I don’t report you to the police.”
Jeneana lept out of bed and ran to the top of the stairs. “No mum you must report him.”
“Shut up you evil little cow. This is all your fault,” he said.
Mother told him again to get out.
“Where am I going to this time of night?”
“I don’t care, you’ll never touch my kid again. Come back tomorrow I will have your things packed. Now get out!”
He looked up the stairs to where Jeneana stood. “This is all your fault. I’m going to get even with you, ya little shit!”
“You shoud have kept ya hands to yaself.” Jeneana said, “You dirty bastard!”
“Jeneana,” screamed her mother, “Enough!”
“Go on get out. I don’t want to see your face again. Your things will be on the step in the morning. If you don’t pick them up I will put them in the bin. Your choice!”
He turned and left glancing up the stairs as he went. Jeneana felt relieved. She wouldn’t have to put up with his beery breath and wandering hands any more. Her mother closed the door behind him with a bang. She huddled in the corner and slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. She sobbed and sobbed and sobbed.
Jeneana listened for a while from the top of the stairs. It did hurt her to hear her mother cry, but it wasn’t tears for her it was tears for herself. She was on her own again. She hated being on her own. Jeneana went to bed turned out the light. She put her hand inside her pyjamas and gently stroked herself. This wasn’t dirty this was her choice. She drifted off to sleep. In the morning a thumping on the front door awakened her. She heard her mum put the chain on before opening it. “What do you want?”
“I want my stuff,” he said
“It’s all there on the step,” she said. “Everything you came with. Nothing more, nothing less.”
“What about my new jeans and my watch?”
“I bought them. You’re not having them.”
“How am I going to tell the time,” he argued.
“There’s time on your phone.”
“It’s not the same.”
“It will have to do,” she said, “now leave or I will call the police!”
“But I love you Mel.”
“I don’t love you.”
Yeah ya do. You just been listening to her too much. She never did like me. She hates me coz you love me.”
“I don’t. You hurt my child. That is unforgivable. Now go or you will be going to jail.”
“But Mel…” She slammed the door. He opened the letterbox and shouted, “It was her who started it. She wanted to feel my todger, she asked me.”
“Go now I am phoning the police.”
The letterbox snapped shut and he was gone. Mel went upstairs into Jeneana’s room. Jeneana was getting dressed.
“Is it true?”
“What he said about you asking to touch his todger.”
“No it’s not mum. I’m twelve I don’t even know what a todger is, Well I didn’t until he got it out and asked if he would like to play with it. I’m a kid what would I know?”
“So you didn’t touch him then?”
“No he held my hand and put it on him. I pulled away, it was ’orrible. All sticky. Why would I want to touch that it’s disgusting.”
“OK I believe you. I’m calling the police.”
Mel called the police and told them what had happened. They asked her to bring Jeneana to the station for a formal interview.
It was all very matter of fact in the station. They sat in a small room with a WPC who ask them all the questions. It seemed to go on for ages. The same questions were asked over and over again. When it was finished the WPC said they would pick him up today and he would be locked up for a very long time.
When they left the police station they went into town and had a late lunch at M&S. Jeneana felt relieved it was, for the most part, all over. Mel was quiet. She didn’t say a lot. She had lost her fella and was alone again. Men in her life never seemed to be around for very long. She thought it was because once they had had a feel of her daughter they got out before they were caught. She supposed it was always a danger being a single mum with kids especially girls that the right man might be interested in her for all the wrong reasons. In fact reflecting on this Mel decided she must be far more careful.
Jeneana started to write in her notebook. She wrote about all the stuff that happened, about her mum, about ‘HIM’, and about the police station. She kept remembering odd things that at the time didn’t seem out of place at the time, but in hind sight…….
It was nearly a week later that she went, after school, to the canal. She stood on the bridge and looked to where the boat had been last time she was here. It was gone. The tears welled up in her eyes. She had so wanted to show Max what she had been writing. She dropped her head and slowly walked off the bridge. From the other side of the bridge there sounded a horn, three times. It seemed to be calling her. As she turned she saw Max on the wharf. A smile as big as the sun beamed across her face. Max was standing beside his boat and a yellow hose was snaking across the wharf to the front of his boat, disappearing down inside the welldeck. She ran across the bridge and down the steps onto the wharf. Running excitedly up to Max she didn’t know whether she should hug him or not. She decided not.
“Hello,” she said.
“Well hello to you too,” he answered.
“I’m glad you are still here I wanted to see you. I have been writing.”
“Well done! I didn’t expect to see you again.”
“Well I am here,” she said still trying to catch her breath. “Do you have cake?”
“Well yes I always do. Would you like some?”
On board the boat Max set about getting things ready. He still lit the gas on before filling the kettle. Jeneana made herself at home. Shortly they were drinking tea, eating cake and discussing her story. Max sat and read the words she had penned. It was difficult to read such a story. Although they had only met once he was quite fond of her. The words she wrote spelled out a story of great sadness. It hurt him that she had suffered that way. After he finished reading he reached over and hugged her. She wasn’t sure, but given that he didn’t seem to be threatening she let it happen.
“Jeneana,” he said, “I see you listened to what I said. This is very good, especially as you are so young. It needs a few tweeks, but I think you should enter it in a writing competition.”
“Really is it that good?”
“Yes for a first attempt it is very good.”
He spent some time showing her how she could put things a bit better and explained about paragraphing, sentence structure and then corrected her spelling.
“Can you use a computer?”
“Would you like to type it up?”
“Yes why not it will look much better if you can see it in print.”
He took her to the office at the back of the boat. They passed through the kitchen into the bedroom. She noticed the purple bed linen and mad a flippant comment. The bathroom was set across the boat so they walked through the centre past the shower and into the office. Max switched on the laptop and they waited for it to boot up. He opened the word processor. “Have you seen this before?”
“Yes we have it at school.”
“Well look I have some things to do, then I need to move the boat to the other side of the bridge. You carry on and put it all on the computer while I get on with my stuff. It might take you some time, but there is no hurry.
“Fanks,” she said.
Max left her to the task of writing and went ashore. The water tank was nearly full so he got out the pump need for emptying the toilet. Once the water over-flowed the filler he turned off the tap and cleared away the hose. He put the cover back on the front storage which hid the water filler. He then connected up the pump to the toilet tank and emptied that. Rinsed it out and finished pumping it out. About an hour had passed when he had finished. When all of his equipment was stowed he started the engine. Of course that aroused Jeneana’s curiosity and she came up to the back deck.
“Have you finished?” he asked.
“No, but I have never been on a moving boat before I thought I would come and see how it was done.”
“Oh it’s very simple,” he said, “This lever here makes it go forwards and backwards and controls the engine speed. This here is the tiller and makes the boat go left and right.” He demonstrated. “Left to go right and Right to go left.” She looked at him askew. It doesn’t take long to get the hang of it, especially as you don’t drive."
“People who drive are used to moving the wheel right to go right and left to go left. It takes a while to get the hang of doing it the opposite way. You don’t have that implanted in your head because you don’t drive it will be easier for you.”
“Oh! Can I have a go?”
"Not just now, next time you come we can go on a short cruise. You will have to ask your mother though.”
“Yes you will I cant take you off on a trip without your mum knowing. I am taking a risk having you on the boat as it is. Your mum might not like you being here with a stranger.”
“Your not a stranger!”
“I am to your mother. You must ask.”
“But she will say no, or want to come along. Its not fair!”
“Sorry but I need to cover myself. I could be taken in just having you on the boat.”
“But nothing has happened, nothing will happen, will it?”
“No. You don’t need that sort of problem. You have suffered enough.”
“But would you?”
“Even if I wanted you to.?”
“No I value my freedom, you are very sweet but no.”
“Well then I don’t have to tell my mum.”
“It would not be a good idea. Let me ask her. She wont mind if we are up front about this.”
“No! No! No!”
“Well then this will be your first trip and your last trip. It is important to me.”
“It’s not fair!”
“Maybe, but that’s the way it is.”
He left the boat and untied the ropes. Jeneana sulked back into the boat. Max pushed the front of the boat out away from the wharf. He stepped on the back and, increasing the throttle the boat gently chugged away. A gentle touch on the tiller and the boat was lined up to pass through the bridge. It was only a few hundred yards through the bridge back to the place where he had spent the last few weeks in the ice. Bringing the boat alongside the bank he stepped off taking the centre line with him and pulled the boat in close. The boat rested there while he tied the fore and aft ropes. Jeneana was busy at the computer. Max finished outside and came onboard into the engine room. Jeneana watched him lift the top step. He did something underneath and closed the step again.
After shutting the doors he passed through the boat to the front, asking Jeneana on the way through if she wanted anything. Jeneana was in two minds whether or not to answer, but after a pause she said, “Has all the cake gone?”
“No would you like some?”
“Please,” she said with a smile then continued on typing her story into the computer. Max bought the cake in and placed near the keyboard.
“Now be careful not to drop crumbs on the keys.”
He looked over her shoulder. She was doing very well. It might need a bit of formatting but she was making good progress. Max had written a couple of books and knew what publishers wanted. He felt so sure her piece could win a prize.
He rested back on the cabinet and watched her work. She was quick, like it was second nature. Certainly a faster typer than he was. He watched looking back and fro from her fingers writing to the screen. Eventually he tired of his ‘perch’ and went forward leaving her to work alone. She typed away for what seemed like hours. Then suddenly she was standing beside him.
“I’m finished,” she said excitedly, “Would you like to look at it?”
Max walked down the boat, sat at the desk and read her work. It was very good for one so young. He did the paragraphing and printed it off. Returning to his chair at the front of the boat he handed her the hard copy. She sat there and read it through, amazed. She had never seen anything of hers look so pristine. She was very pleased with the result.
“So now what do I do with it?”
“Well I will look up a few competitions and we can select the best and send it in.”
“Is it free?”
“Don’t worry I will pay the fee.”
“You cant! It wouldn’t be fair.”
“Trust me it will be worth it.”
She stood up and sat on his lap and nestled into his shoulder. She felt the warmth of him. She felt loved. Max was a bit uncomfortable with this. She sat awkwardly and she was boney, but he liked her closeness and put his arms around her and held her close.
As the sun dipped behind the horizon they stretched and thought about getting Jeneana home. They had had a pleasant afternoon together and she didn’t feel threatened by Max at all. When she got up to go Max gave her a gift, simply a memory stick containing her story. She thanked him and they set off down the towpath together. They criossed over the bridge and walked into town where they parted company.
It was several days later when Max, up to his elbows in washing up, heard a knock on the roof of the boat. He dried his hands and went out the front door. Standing on the bank was Jeneana and a woman who he assumed was her mother. “Hello,” she said, This is my mum.”
“Oh hi! Max". He said holding out his hand.
“Pleased to meet you I’m Melanie”
“Won’t you come in?”
Max backed into the boat and Jeneana led her mum inside.
“Please sit down. I will put the kettle on.”
While Max went into the kitchen the girls sat down. Mel looked around and noticed it was tidy.
“You have caught me at a bad time I was doing the house work.”
“Looks fine to me. Jeneana tells me you helped her write a story.”
“Yes I did.”
“Do you think as a stranger you should have been alone with her on your boat?”
“In hind sight no, but it was a cold night and she was freezing cold. She was scared. I usually manage to keep my humanity in the forefront of all such considerations. I couldn’t leave her outside dressed as she was. What would you have had me do?”
“Send her home?”
“Well that was mentioned but she wasn’t going to go.”
Just then the kettle boiled.
“Milk and sugar?” he asked.
“Just milk, thank you.”
“Would you like cake?”
“She came home when she was ready that was her choice. She was happier when she left than when she arrived and a good deal warmer.”
“Max I don’t know you from Adam, but I do know when my kid was in need you helped her and I thank you for being so kind. I know that situation put you in a very risky position. Had you turned her away I would never have found out about what had been happening at home. Now about this writing competition. I don’t want you putting big ideas in her head!”
Max glanced at Jeneana, she glanced at him with a twinkle in her eye. “They are not big ideas. What Jeneana has written is very good and an entry into a competition is too good an opportunity to miss.”
“Yes I understand that, but if any money is needed I will find it. I don’t want to be more indebted to you.”
She lifted her cup and sipped her tea. Jeneana caught his eye and smiled.
“Now,” she said, “You will understand from the story what has been happening at home.”
"Well as I have said I am very grateful for the help you have given Jeneana, but understand this, if you lay one inappropriate finger on Jeneana I will not hesitate to go to the police.”
“Mel, I can assure you, you have nothing to worry about on that score.”
“Good as long as we have that clear! So the competition, which one do you suggest?”
“Well I have made up a list. Look, Jeneana wanted to go on a cruise, howabout I finish the housework today and we all go out on a trip tomorrow and we can talk about it then.”
“OK we can do that.”
Jeneana was smiling ear to ear. Max took some papers from the bookcase and gave them to Mel.
“Here take these and read them through, it’s some competitions, then we can discuss it tomorrow.”
Jeneana was excited, “What time shall we come.”
“Oh about 9 should be OK. Wear sturdy shoes and warm clothes. We can go down to Lockford Mere, have lunch, walk up the hill to the monument. Then return in time for tea. Now the ice has gone I will be glad to get this old tub moving again.”
Not yet finished