Two Lives

The river warden stood submerged up to his waist in the mid-stream, where the braiding sinews of a syrupy undercurrent had relaxed to create a skewed ellipse of near-motionless water. After many years on the river he found that he could easily spot these dead zones within the slowly-circulating continuity that eased itself interminably between the banks. The majority were temporary, created by seasonal variations in the levels, or by shifting conditions on the riverbed. A few were perennial and had lasted long enough for him to christen with the names of people he had known, but from whom he was now estranged, separated by circumstance, time and distance. These would expand and contract and gradually shift in position. Every so often one would disappear entirely, at long last gulped down by the river. He would dwell upon the sudden absence in the same way that one might dwell quietly upon the absence of a friend who has passed away.

He often found these columns of still water occupied by schools of trout who had taken temporary refuge there, unharnessing themselves from the incessant pull of the river towards the distant North Sea. When the channel was clear he would stare down into it and observe the ebbing placidity in the long brown bodies of the fish as they, at first, stirred and then scattered in the wake of his gradual approach, their retreats shrouded in the billowing clouds of silt that were roused from the riverbed ahead of his cautious footsteps.

It was from these hidden islands of tranquillity, occupying the voids between the slow-turning revolutions of the current, that the warden liked to pause and survey his surroundings.

At some indeterminate point during the previous decade, the deep sets of lines that defined his face had fixed themselves permanently into a configuration that had placed him beyond the reaches of time and age. He did not socialise very often and the few people who he called friends found it difficult to imagine him as a younger man. His dark, greying hair, thinning along the forehead, thickened coarsely at the base of his neck where it scrolled inward over the collar of a rugged cream-coloured shirt, gridded with double threads of red cotton. A thin, navy-blue jumper, speckled with fragments of dead leaves and small twigs ensnared in the low-lying wool fuzz, was swallowed up by a pair of loose-fitting, chest-high, green dungaree waders. The segmented metal strap of his watch had slipped down his left wrist and partly settled into the deep rut of a braided scar. He explored the old wound with one finger as he checked the time.

He had named the still spot in the river where he stood, ‘Edwaker‘. Under the pale glare of the midday sun, that occupied an ambiguous position in the opaque sky, his shadow loomed across the flat expanse of green water, pitted with tiny floating debris, darkening his murky reflection that stared up at him from the channel as if trapped under the surface. The previous day, he had watched the groundskeepers at Grice Noak golf course, thinning-out the trees on the opposite bank. The air had been masked with a silty blue-grey smog of diesel fumes, rising in slow-motion from the guttering snarl of the chainsaws and the sharp crack and tearing of splintering green wood. A giant willow had been methodically divested of the long weeping branches that trailed across the channel. The heavy crooked boughs that remained had been sawn-off in mid-meander a few feet above where they joined the trunk, leaving them posed obliquely, like the broken-off arms of a damaged statue. The thick stumps of the branches closest to the bank projected dark bands of shadow onto those behind. Through the new gap in the foliage the warden could see a portion of a fairway. Amidst a scattered flock of grounded seagulls, a hunched-down quartet of white egrets were strutting about on the short grass, changing direction abruptly at meticulously acute angles.

He allowed his attention to move with the flow further downstream, where his gaze settled upon a slow-moving, oddly-textured patch of water that reflected the light differently and appeared distinct from the river that surrounded it. A drifting tree limb, bearing satellite branches tipped with the crumpled spearheads of emerging leaves, was caught in the centre, distending the surface tension. He watched as it was ponderously spun around under the action of some hidden eddy that rotated like a cog within the advancing current.

The river under his care was called the Rowland. It was a nine-mile stretch that had formerly been a canal, joining the brick kilns at Brownlea with the river Cam and the nearby city of Cambridge, where the bricks had been turned into houses. The itinerant Irish labourers who dug the canal by hand had setted down in the area and worked in the kilns. After the brick fields closed, the linear banks of the canal were demolished by the grandsons and great grandsons of those who had built them up. The water was allowed to find its own meandering course across the floor of the valley.

The Rowland was now a service waterway and no longer accessible to the public. At the end of the pleasure-boating season in Cambridge, the river punts that plied at a sedate pace up and down the Cam during the warm summer months, were divested of their poles, blankets, pillows, and the parasols that were called ‘dapplers’, whose soft, gauzy cotton canopies of irregular thickness, projected blurred patterns of shadow and light onto the passengers. The low lying rectangular hulls of the boats were lashed together and towed up the channel by tug. At the end of the river, they were guided into a gated section called Long Lock and subsequently into Lotgering Pond, where they were kept, tethered to each other in the water, until mid-March, when they made the return journey to the city.

The river warden had once found a reporter from a University student newspaper curled-up under a blanket in one of the boats. The flustered young man had explained to him that he was researching an article to be titled: ‘The migration of the punts’ that would illuminate readers on where the boats disappeared to during the winter season, since this had been a recurring topic of speculation among his peers. The warden answered the student’s questions over breakfast before walking him to the lane that would lead him back into town. Months after the incident occurred he had mentioned it in passing to a member of the Cambridge University staff. A few days later, he had received, in the post, a handwritten apology from the Vice Chancellor, with assurances that such a thing would not happen again.

Adjacent to Lotgering Pond stood an old thatched cottage where the river warden lived. On the fringes of the large open garden that the property occupied, there was a cure run which had existed on the site since the 17th century. It was a narrow, 200 metre-long strip of short grass, bordered on either side by rambling beds of herbs and wild flowers. The gathered pollens and scents of the plants in the verges had once been thought to act a collective remedy for a gamut of ailments. In his job contract, the warden was required to mow the grass on the last Saturday of each month. The plant beds were attended to a few times a year by volunteer gardeners who worked under the guidance of the English Heritage society.

When he was new in the job, he had discovered a volume on country medicine in the library nook of the cottage. A chapter on cure runs eulogised the one on his property as a refined example of the pagan restorative tradition that had once seen people frolic naked among wild gardens of plants that were known for their healing qualities. The man who had established the run at the cottage was a reverend named Jillings who had seen something of value in the old tradition, but had taken a more wholesome approach to it, in keeping with his faith. He had written in his diary that “a brisk promenade back and forth along its full length, while inhaling and exhaling deeply through the nose, the mouth, and the eyes, shall set a man in excellent stead for the day that lies before him.”

The idea of the cure run had intrigued the river warden. One evening in midsummer, after a few drinks taken in solitude, he had stepped out into the scented dusk, dis-robed, and then charged headlong up and down the freshly-mown grass, returning in a ragged state of bent-over breathlessness to the warm rumpled heap of his clothing. Every morning since then, he had repeated the ritual, through sun and rain, and fog that rose up off the river; one time in a blizzard of snowflakes that swarmed around him like a flock of white birds. His bare footsteps trampled down the cool, waxy blades of summer grass; they darkened the silvery veil of the morning dew as the seasons turned colder, and pounded ice crystals to slush as the cold air of winter was filled with his white breath.

Some twenty years ago, a pair of young girls – students from the university, both carrying hardbody guitar cases – had knocked on the door to the cottage. They told him that they had seen the cure run from the footpath. The warden immediately worried that they might have caught sight of him during his daily exercise. Later they admitted to him that they had learned about the run during the course of their studies, and had gone in search of it.

“We were wondering whether we could try it out,” blurted the more precocious of the pair who had lingered at the front door; her companion had lost her nerve and retreated a few steps down the path to the front gate.

“If you want to watch, we don’t mind,” she said, making him blush.

“Go ahead,” he told them. “You need to follow the path around the outbuildings. I’ll be inside. Just knock on the door when you’re decent.”

As he readied himself for the day ahead, the high-pitching sound of their laughter and excited shrieks were carried into the cottage through the open kitchen window. They returned to his door brimming over with elation, breathless and dishevelled, as if they had hurriedly pulled their clothes back on.

He made them coffee and bacon sandwiches. They told him that they were on their way to busk in the town centre for the Saturday morning crowds. Before leaving they serenaded him with Homeward Bound, standing side by side, in front of the kitchen stove.

“We might come back another day,” one had said to him as they departed.

He never saw either one again. Sometimes he would wonder to himself how their lives had turned out; whether they were still friends, or had drifted apart as their circumstances changed. He thought about them now, as he stared along the channel whose future was lost to him behind a gradual bend.

On the golf course the white birds had moved on, leaving the fairway green and empty. The clattering caws of the gulls circled distantly out of sight beyond the treeline. He returned his attention to the slowly advancing river, surrendering himself to the indistinct flow of his thoughts.

* * *

A large nautical chart of the frozen archipelago was thumb-tacked to the wall of the substation.

Edwaker brushed his hand across the laminate coating.

“It’s pretty easy to get lost out there. And very hard to get found again if you do.”

He drew a disconnected circle with his finger, around the tiny islands that scattered like crumbs from the head of the continent.

“Millions of years ago, all of this was one big mountain range, shored up by glaciers. Now all that’s left are piles of scree. They still look like mountains until you get up close and you can see that it’s rubble from top to bottom. From the boat it all looks pretty much the same.

“You can’t trust the sun, neither. The sky goes opalescent. Sometimes you get this strange pastel strata of purples, blues and and oranges that blur together. You’ll see an area of the horizon that seems brighter, like the sun might just be lurking somewhere behind. You’ll be tempted to take bearings off it, but it’s just scattered light reflecting off sea ice.”

Challis rubbed at the bandage covering his sore wrist.

“How many get lost?”

“On our end? Last season we had two crews go MIA. That’s about the average. Never found any trace of them. I guess they joined up with the drifters.”

Challis must have smiled or given some false indication that he wasn’t taking the briefing seriously because suddenly Edwaker was right up in his face, head tilted back, his bulging stare meeting the eyes of the taller, younger man, his chin reddening into small pitted dimples as his jaw set. He was so close that Challis could smell the herring on his breath and make out the individual bristles of grey stubble in the chapped, open-pored skin of his face.

“I ain’t joking son,” he snarled. “You mess up out there and it will be like you sailed off the edge of the world. Your family will be burying an empty coffin.”

He continued to remain trembling on the spot, fixing Challis with milky blue eyes that bulged with suppressed, inarticulate fury. In the next moment the anger had dissipated. He relaxed, turning away and addressing the map on the wall.

“That’s why we take frequent bearings. Every fifteen minutes on the dot, just like they taught you in orientation. And we put down our markers on the islands or in the water, remembering to keep them clear of the whale lanes. Out there all we’ve got is each other.”

The old man went back to the card game that was underway by the stove. Pilbrow was grousing again about the barometer.

“It’s not built to operate at that range. It puts a strain on the working parts. If it blacks out anytime after October and I can’t fix it, you’ll be out there in the cold taking weather readings.”

Across the table, Graseman smirked.

“Not my problem. I’m shipping out of here at the end of August.”

“We get better readings doing it the way we’ve been doing it,” said Yetton. He laid his cards down in front of him. “Anyway, I don’t see what the problem is. We’re narrowing the overall range but pushing it further out in one direction. It’s still the same total area being covered. All we are doing is changing the distribution.”

Pilbrow glared at him.

“Just because you’ve found a workaround doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing. Try to see it from my end, because this is my responsibility and I’m seeing components burning out faster than we are going to be able to replace them. We’re already down to our last box of fuses. We carry on like this and the people back at Breslin are going to start asking questions. If they take us off the warrantee then we’ll all be royally screwed.”

Yetton stared down at his losing hand of cards and shook his head.

“Bottom line, Jim: If there’s a storm coming in our direction, then I want to know about it before heading out.”

Graseman gathered his winnings into a small untidy pile. Wallington reached over him, scooping up the cards and shuffling them back into the pack.

Challis had wandered over to a quiet corner on the far side of the room. The fresh wound on his wrist glowed beneath its dressings. Gingerly he lifted the bandage, exposing the deep sticky rut where the rope had bitten down into his flesh. He did not hear Edwaker come up behind him.

“You’ll need to get that properly dressed before we head out. Cold gets in there and you’ll lose your hand. Aston has the key to the first aid cupboard.”

He held out a chipped enamel mug of steaming black coffee.

“Listen, sorry about earlier. I’m told I have a temper. It comes and goes.”

Challis took the coffee from him. The handle of the mug burned his fingers. He nodded as he raised it up to his lips and took a small sip. Edwaker smoothed out a crease in one of his fingertips left behind by the scorching enamel.

“Like I said, out there you’re all I’ve got.”

* * *

The river warden heard the brittle vibration of a boat engine labouring at low speed; a sound like a metal spoon being rattled against the interior of a plastic container, shifting marginally up and down in tone as the revolutions increased or dropped off. An oily diesel cloud, issuing from the overtaxed motor, rose above the rambling shrubbery, painting itself thickly on the air like a smoke signal.

An open-cabined boat nosed slowly around the bend. Lashed loosely together behind it, a jostling plume of punts almost filled the channel.

‘Maybe 40, probably a few too many,’ the warden thought. The wake of the bow wave, fanning outwards behind the propeller, nudged at the banks, sending small animals concealed in the tangled overgrowth splashing and scrabbling for deeper cover. He waved with one slow, broad sweep of his hand at the figure in the cabin, before moving to join the scattering wildlife, wading from his quiet spot in the channel and gracelessly clawing his way back up through the river sedge and onto dry land. Rivulets of green water raced down the creased canyons of his rubber waders in a bid to rejoin the current.

The pilot had turned off the ignition. The engine guttered to a gradual stop as the boat drifted towards the waterside. The prow gently ricocheted off solid ground and began nudging its way along the bank. An unfamiliar face peered out from the cabin.

“Are you Martin Challis? I’ve been told that you’ll take these off my hands.”

The pilot stepped out onto the small aft deck of the vessel where a crooked row of horned cleats formed a tying-off point for the taut, trailing strings of punts. He picked up a coiled blue rope from the floor and tossed it inexpertly onto the bank. The warden trapped one of the loops under the sole of his waders. An iron mooring bollard, embedded in a surviving capstone from the former canal, had been swallowed up in a knotted spume of foliage that reared over the water. He explored the rampant greenery with one foot until he felt his toe make contact with heavy metal. Pushing aside the overlapping leaves and stalks he fastened the rope around the neck of the post in a loose knot, catching sight of the vanishing hind legs of a toad crawling ponderously into the long grass, as he rose to his feet.

“What happened to John Durkin?” he called out.

“He retired in April. Throat cancer.”

“He alright?”

“I don’t know him. It was mentioned to me when I took over.”

The two men shook hands across a narrowing gap of water. The punts had bunched together in the channel, swinging around as a single pinched mass behind the vessel at their head, the tail-enders pressing against the far bank.

“I’m his stand-in, Ron Brion… So, where do we go from here?”

“Just around the bend there’s a lock-gate. I need you to come in very slowly on this side of the river. Once you are in position you are going to have creep around while inching forward. It’s wider up there but it’s still a squeeze.”

“Will they all fit?”

“It’s a double-width lock. How many did you bring?”


“They should, with a bit of coaxing. As a rule of thumb don’t bring up more than 30 at a time. What mooring point are these from?”


“So you’re doing it in reverse order?”

“I’m just going down the list that was handed me.”

Challis nodded.

“I’ll walk on ahead. You follow me up.”

He freed the rope from around the bollard.

Brion returned to the cabin. It took him three attempts to re-start the engine. Through the grimy acrylic of the front window he watched the river warden as he moved along the bank, forced into an inelegant ambling gait by his waders. One hand swatted at a desiccated clump of dead thistles, stirring up a dry cloud of dust from the fractured stems and releasing a swarm of yellowing seed heads across the channel.

* * *

The motor launch ploughed across the choppy open water that raced between the looming island silhouettes of the collapsed mountains. Any sense of the small vessel’s speed or progress was engulfed by the monumental scale of the surrounding landscape. A turbulent breeze had scattered the wavelets into discordant patches, each mismatched section flowing in a different direction to its neighbours, juddering the hull of launch in the transition and knocking the boat off-course. A clinging haze of darkness lingered on the horizon, bruised with a rusting strata of oranges and browns where the skyline joined with the sea.

Challis sat at the front, watching the lurching prow as it nudged a path between the beds of ice slush. In the open wheelhouse, Edwaker stared straight ahead. Between the fur fringe of his hood and the red woollen scarf he had wrapped across his nose and mouth, only his eyes remained visible. On the dashboard, a peeling strip of green sticky tape marked the position on the engine throttle that yielded optimum fuel consumption. A metal bar mounted on the handrail, at the rear of the craft, trailed five short lengths of tethered rope. The grapple hooks fastened to the far ends skipped along playfully in the propeller wash.

The boat had been handmade, in accordance with local traditions, from aalnuq pine, that had been cut into planks and left to harden outdoors for three years in the subarctic temperatures. Challis fished a small tin out from under the triangular bench seat at the very front of the vessel. As he levered off the thin lid the overpowering smell of paraffin made him briefly giddy and nauseous. He unwrapped a brush from the filthy grey rag of an old sports T-shirt and began to dab the black weathering paint into small chips and indentations in the wood.

“If you ever get marooned, use a little as an accelerant to make yourself a fire,” Edwaker had told him. “Just think very carefully about what you burn and don’t toss anything that you’re going to need later.”

A cloud of white vapour, snorted violently from the water ahead of them, the waves rising up around the arching, barnacle-covered, back of a whale. Edwaker took them out of its path. A few minutes later Challis spotted a polar bear loping along the stony grey foreshore of a nearby island. When it reached the end of the beach it plunged into the water and began paddling towards them. Edwaker slowed down the boat, removed the rifle from the fur-lined cabin holster and fired three shots over the animal’s head before it changed course and headed back to land.

When a quarter of an hour had passed he cut the engine and they took their bearings.

“It’s not too bad temperature wise,” said the old man. He uncapped a permanent marker and scrawled some digits onto the day-glo orange bulb of an onion-shaped buoy. He dropped it over the rear of the vessel between the grapple ropes that hung down into the channel, pulling away from the hull at steep vertical angles. The marker bobbed high in the water, the small, stiff, triangular flag, protruding from the top, aligning itself to the prevailing direction of the current.

“That’s a four o’clocker,” he said.

He raised the battered, downward-slanting, hinged lid of a deep and narrow red wooden box, that was screwed to one of the side walls of the cabin, and removed a large Thermos flask.

“Got coffee if you want it.”

After the old man had poured himself a small cup, Challis took the flask from him. The open neck steamed like a chimney. The faint warmth of the cocooned liquid leached through the padding in his gloves.

“You been inland yet?” said Edwaker. He had pulled his scarf down away from his mouth. The rolling white clouds of his warm breath were swiftly pulled apart by the gusting fragments of a bitter arctic wind.

“This is my first posting. My second, if you count orientation.”

“Where’d you do that? Over at Summerhaze?”

“I did it on The Dalloway.”

“They schooled you on the ship? You do any work in the field?”

Challis shook his head.

“Jeez. They used to do most of the training at Summerhaze. It’s an old logging camp. It sits right on the treeline. There’s a wooden pier flanked by a pair of totem poles. Must be a good sixty feet tall. The buckers cut them, I guess. You can see they put Pierre Trudeau in there. John Macdonald’s at the top of one. It’s like a Canadian Mount Rushmore.

“There’s an old lumber river nearby called the Woodslip. Two or three days in the month the current redraws itself. You get this tidal drag effect as it surges in from the estuary. The lower stream starts to flow backwards into itself. Brings up the water level some.

“On those days, it’s impossible to move downriver. You’ll burn out your motor if you’re dumb enough to fight it. If you’re in open water and the current catches you passing across the mouth of the river you’ll likely be pulled in and drawn up the channel and over the rapids. At this time of year you’ll be in the company of the steelheads making the same journey.

“You’ll get dropped-off up in the grits. It’s a shale beach made up from spoil from the old mining works. They used to dig for coal and copper up there. Whatever you do, don’t try to hike back through the forest. There’s bears up there and maybe a few wolves. It’s easy to get lost. There’s a cabin on the foreshore where you can hole up until the tidal current weakens. Usually there’s a supply of tinned food inside. Just do your best to steer around the rocks on your way up so you don’t inflict too much damage.”

Challis exhaled a cloud of warm coffee breath between pursed lips.

“When do you think they’ll rotate me out of here?”

Edwaker was perched on a bench seat along one side of the boat. He had been talking with his head down over his coffee, not making eye contact. He smiled with bared teeth.

“Novelty wearing off already is it? It depends on whose in charge this season. Some like to keep the new recruits in the same place and with the same team. Others like to switch them around every six to eight weeks so they get experience in different theatres.”

He turned around and shook the dregs of his coffee over the wavelets, remaining in that position, staring out across the water. The small boat bobbed silently in the wide channel among the looming rubble of the mountains.

“This place ain’t nothing but a cemetery. All these peaks; they’re just the grave markers of an extinct geological era.”

He learned out over the side of the boat, pointing beyond the wheel housing, towards the horizon.

“You keep going 70 miles or so over in that direction and you’ll come to the Dodds-Vicker Centrifuge. It’s off-limits. They’ve got military up there. If you ever start seeing poles with red lights at the end poking out from the ground, then you need to turn around quick as you can and get yourself away from there.”

“What’s over there?”

Challis pointed to a section of the sky that had separated into pastel-toned bands of blues, oranges and browns.

“That’s just the sea ice playing games with you. It’s what I warned you about. Even the ice gets bored out here. Not much to do other than play games.”

“You won a lot of money, yesterday. I think you near cleaned Owen out .”

“At the substation?”

The old man screwed the cap tightly back on the head of Thermos.

Look, here’s the thing: Boys like you come and go all the time; young men in their twenties from the suburbs who feel like they’re missing out on a part of being a man; something that their daddies and their granddaddies had but they don’t, so they come out here. A few months later they go home with an adventure story to impress their girlfriends and their families; maybe base their first novel around it like they’re Jack London. While you’re here, we hard-timers make ourselves a little extra scratch. You can look on it as a down payment on the extra effort that it takes to keep you all alive.”

Far out in the channel, the waves suddenly erupted in a detonation of white spray. The immense black body of a whale breached the water, the forces of gravity mustering, hauling it over onto its side as it submerged into a roiling surf of its own making.

* * *

Their first attempts at bringing the punts in through the lock had failed. Eventually, Challis decided that there were too many and had Brion reverse gingerly back out into the main channel. They corralled the armada in a vaguely circular cul-de-sac that had once functioned as a loading area for the brick kilns. The boats nudged gently against each other as the river warden waded between them, separating the mass into individual strings.

“We can probably walk them through the lock a few at a time,” he called to Brion, who was still loitering helplessly in the cabin of the tug.

“When they’re all through, I’ll need you to bring the boat in and help nudge them into position,” he said, after they had reconvened on the bank.

“How does one become a punt keeper, if you don’t mind me asking? What’s the career path?”

“Officially, I’m the river warden for the Rowland. The punts are a small part of my job. I suppose I did something a bit similar a long time ago in northern Canada.”

“Do they have punts in Canada?”

“They have ice canoes.”

Challis rubbed the scar on his wrist with the cuff of his shirt.

“So what did that entail?”

“The part of the job involving the canoes was tied-up in the preservation of native cultures. The tribes along the northern coastlines of Canada and Russia perform sea burials. I was with one of the teams responsible for documenting and maintaining the funeral canoes and keeping them away from the shipping lanes.”

“If you’ll pardon me, that sounds like the kind of thing where you could stand back and allow nature to take its course.”

“It’s a complicated situation. There are oil and gas companies operating out there. With that comes tension with local people. There’s a big pot of corporate money put aside to fund native programs. The funeral canoes have to remain afloat for the duration of a second lifetime, before the occupants can move on into the afterlife. They were getting run down or damaged by the oil tankers. Members of the tribe aren’t permitted any contact with the dead after they have been set adrift, so that was where we came in. We were employed by the Canadian environmental agency but it was all bankrolled by private money. We didn’t just take care of the boats. We took weather readings and gathered scientific data; kept an eye on the animal populations.”

“So what, are like based in a town somewhere and then you go out?”

“There are outpost stations spread across the wilderness. I’m talking right out in the middle of nowhere, almost as far north as you can go. The first time you go out there, the landscape really cuts you down to size. Nothing can prepare you for it. The silence is on a different scale. It beds down inside you. Some people can’t handle it. I wore earplugs for the first month. I couldn’t bear to hear the smallness of my own voice. You could shout out at the top of your lungs and make no impression on it. The sound gets swallowed up. The cold dries out your vocal cords; makes your voice sound leathery. When I came back home after my first season, my mother said that it was like talking to a different person. I walked in on her in the kitchen one morning and found her crying about it.”

“How long did you work out there for?”

“I did four seasons. Three and a half years. I moved to England when I was 23. Did a year studying poetry at Cambridge on a scholarship. Couldn’t really settle down to that after Canada. Dropped out before they kicked me out. Waited on tables for a while. Served a lot of the people who I went to university with.”

“Do you miss it?”

“Waiting tables or the university?”

“I meant Canada.”

Challis picked agitatedly at the ridged cuff of his jumper.

“There are a lot of conflicting emotions. Sometimes I think about the people I was out there with. A lot of them are probably retired by now. I always end up working myself into a restless state of envy and dissatisfaction. I got something from being out there that I cant get from anywhere else and it haunts me. I still yearn for it. I don’t know whether my old job even exists and I certainly couldn’t cope with it at my age, but I do miss it. This is as close as I have been able to get to it in England. It’s quiet, most of the time. No-one really bothers me…”

His voice trailed off into the rising surf noise of the wind churning in the trees, loosening the first of the Autumn leaves that flickered down towards the river. In the distance, a wooden club striking solidly against a golf ball made a sharp heavy thwack that sounded like thick ice cracking under pressure.

* * *

“We’re heading between the twins.”

Edwaker had raised his voice so that he could be heard over the sound of the throttling engine as it fought the cross-current. He pointed towards a pair of ash-grey mounds that occupied the middle distance ahead.

“That’s Pokmau on the left and Pitmau on the right. They’re brother and sister. We often find drifters along the channel. We’ll inspect any that we encounter on dry land and tow them back into open water afterwards.”

They caught sight of the first two soon after; a pair of long, dark canoes, bogged down together in the doldrums – an eye of still water lurking despondently between the main braids of the current. Both boats were covered with ageing tarpaulins which had been lashed down over the sides of the hulls. Edwaker made a slow approach, with the engine dipped to a respectful throb. They coasted alongside the nearest of the two craft at a distance of about ten feet. The tarp had broken free at one end. Beneath the idly-flapping corner of the weathered copper-green fabric, Challis caught a glimpse of grey hair and papery skin, bleached the colour of bone.

“We”ll tow them to the beach over there. Check them for damage,” said Edwaker.

With some cautious manoeuvring and propeller backwash, Challis manage to anchor the grapples to the canoes. They chugged slowly in the direction of Pokmau, until they felt the keel brush side-on against an expanse of smooth-worn grey stones, each one roughly the size of a man’s fist. Challis jumped out first, his insulated waders splashing down on the enlarged shingle. Edwaker tossed him the fore and aft drag anchors. He remained onboard at the engine console while the younger man raked the stones into small cairns around the grapnels.

“Remember, we only look them over if they’re Canadian. If they’re Russian we leave them alone,” he said as he jumped down onto the beach.

“There’s another one drifting out there. Over on the right.”

Challis pointed with a gloved hand, across the channel to where a battered row boat, bearing vestiges of light blue paint, and covered over with a tarp, was turning about on the muddled current.

“It’s headed this way. We’ll wait for the tide to bring it ashore.”

When the dinghy had drifted within arm’s-length they leaned out and grabbed hold of it, their breath fogging over the fractured prow as they dragged it onto the stones, clear of the water. Edwaker used the sleeve of his anorak to wipe away a broken screen of ice-crystals from the wooden rail, revealing some crudely chiselled letters and numbers in Cyrillic script.

“See this engraving? This one is Russian, so we leave it. You know, I don’t think this is even tribal. The guy underneath this is a probably a fisherman. I reckon this must be his old boat. Whoever put him in it must have thought ‘It’s on it’s last legs so what the hell.’ It’s one hell of a way to spend your life if you weren’t born into it; if you’ve got no tribe around you, out there in the wilderness…”

He exhaled deeply through his scarf and gazed thoughtfully across the stony foreshore.

“The other two are ours. You take the canoe over there. Take a note of the names and the dates. They’ll be carved somewhere on the side. Make any small repairs that you feel are necessary. Call me over if you run into any difficulties. After we’re done we’ll tow them into open water. We’ll take Yuri here a little further out. There’s a current called the Yokganinn that should carry him home. I know how to spot it.”

The tribal canoes were beached on the pebbles with their far ends touching the water. The two men separated and began to pace around them, tapping on damaged areas of the hulls and testing the knots that fastened the tarpaulins.

“Why do we treat the Russian boats differently?” called Challis.

“Different afterlifes. We need to match the boat to the correct journey. Plus, there’s some politics involved. That guy over there – I guess he just wanted a sea burial. Don’t expect there was anything especially religious about it.”

Challis ran his hands around the sides of the canoe along the intermittent rows of knots that lashed the tarp down to the hull. His gloves rose and fell over a hard cylindrical protuberance just underneath the canvas. He worked it out through a gap between a pair of knots. It was a bottle wrapped in a worn seal leather. He uncovered it. The glass was cloudy and opaque as if it had been worn smooth by the sea.

“There’s some drink in this one.”


Challis held up the bottle.

“Was it inside or outside the tarp?”

“It was stuffed just under.”

Edwaker’s boots raked across the pebbles. He took the bottle from Challis and inspected it.

“You know what this is?”

Challis shook is head.

“It’s similar to vodka. The fishermen out here distil it from lichen in compartments in the tips of their canoes. It’s an acquired taste, like strong liquorice. Some of the bears have developed a fondness for it. They’ll swim after you if they catch the scent. You can mask the odour with some church pine sap. That’s usually enough to put them off. You see this fleece collar around the base of the bottleneck? You need to raise it up to the end when you take a drink, or your lips will freeze on the glass.

“Now, this particular bottle was placed on the canoe to appease the spirits who would guide him on his final journey. In this instance, those benevolent spirits are you and me.”

He wrenched the cork free with a gloved hand and sniffed at the contents.

“Mmmm, that’s good. It’s got an age to it.”

He tilted the neck of the bottle towards Challis who took a sniff. For the second time that day the younger man felt momentarily giddy and light-headed.

“How many do you think are out there?”

“How many drifters? At any one time? It’s difficult to say. Five hundred… a thousand… five thousand. The oldest I ever saw was 67 years. The next oldest was 23. Most of them certainly aren’t out on the water for the second lifetime they need to get into heaven, I can tell you that. I reckon they mostly break up or sink within a couple of years. The ice takes care of a good number. The whales must capsize a few. I’ve seldom come across the same one twice. A few years ago the government wanted us to attach radio transmitters to them. They said that it would be helpful in mapping the currents. The tribal councils put their foot down. You don’t try to follow a man on his journey to the afterlife.”

Edwaker took a deep swig from the bottle. He remained stock still for a few seconds afterwards with the neck tilted away from his mouth.

“Yeah, that’s good.”

He held the bottle out towards Challis.

“Okay, time to break your duck.”

* * *

The loud pop of a champagne cork breached the tranquillity of the pond. It shot into the air like a rocket on a steep rising and descending arc, splashing down onto the still green water, where it bobbed merrily back and forth, partially submerged, spreading delicate, asymmetrical ripples across the surface. Challis falteringly tilted the streaming neck of the bottle toward a slender pair of long-stemmed glasses that Brion was holding close together, one in each hand. A tightly-packed froth of delicate bubbles climbed the interior of the flutes atop a fizzing tide of the lively pale liquid. Challis placed the bottle upright on a flat part of the ground a few feet away from where they were standing. Brion handed him one of the glasses. They clinked the thin rims together and each took a delicate sip.

“There are some traditions that are well worth maintaining,” said the river pilot.

“Believe it or not, this is actually in my job contract. The university supplies the champagne. I have to send off an order in a few days for next year’s bottle. They have a cellar close to the river.”

“I probably won’t be back, but I’ll think of you.”


“Nah, this is a temporary thing for me. I can’t see myself doing it long-term. I’ve got other places to be.”

At the foot of the bank where the two men stood, the fringes of Lotgering pond were matted with expansive loose-knit rafts of brown cedar needles. A few needles that had either broken free, or were yet to be incorporated in the mass, spun around languidly on hidden eddies, like compass points searching for true north.

In the south-eastern quarter of the pond, the punts had been lashed tightly together so that they formed a gently heaving pontoon that seemed to rise and fall with the gentle breeze.

“It’s actually more of a lake than a pond, isn’t it,” observed Brion.

“It used to be smaller. Before there was a proper settlement, it was used as a source of water for livestock. There’s an old painting of it hanging up in one of the colleges. After they established the brick kilns, they expanded it and joined it up with the canal.”

“You know, I’m sure there’s a sensible answer to this, but I cannot fathom why they don’t just store the punts in a boathouse somewhere over the winter. It’s got to be less of a to-do. Not that I’m complaining. It’s a job.”

“It’s considered very bad luck to remove a punt from the water after it’s been launched. Once they go in, they never come out again.”

“The proverbial albatross…”

Ahead, the sky was beginning to darken around the fringes, muting to a bruised strata of oranges, browns and blues in the distant east. On the northern horizon a brilliant white glare pressed up against an opaque screen of clouds. The spherical seed-head of an autumn thistle drifted past on a slow descent, its fine white tendrils attaching themselves to the flat surface of the pond that arrested its momentum and deprived it of any further independent movement. The mouth of a fish breached the water directly underneath, remaining there for a fraction too long as it struggled to gulp down its prize. On the opposite bank, a grey heron took notice of the disturbance. A few lazy wingbeats carried it to a clumsy landing on the blunted end of one of the punts, which swayed stiffly back and forth under the bird’s weight.

* * *

“What’s the strangest thing you’ve seen out here?”

Edwaker was crouched down in the pebbles. The base of the bottle was resting in his lap where he held it steady. The fur-clad neck was tipped towards him, a few inches from his mouth.

“Military submarine. That was a few years ago. I’m guessing that it was Russian. It was stationery on the surface. From a way off I assumed that it must be a rock formation poking through the water. Before the mountains crumbled into boulders, pieces used to get broken off by the glaciers and preserved in the ice. Every so often, in the melting season, one of the old ramparts is exposed. Sometimes you get to see them before their weight pulls them under.

“When we got a little closer we could see that it wasn’t a rock. I suppose they must have seen us too because they submerged pretty quickly. A few minutes later I felt a heavy vibration passing right underneath the boat, like the hand of God was moving at a crawl through the water. The channel we were in wasn’t too deep. I thought they were going to come back up and turn us over. It scared the life out of me. The guy I was with – George Paul – he was a French kid about your age; I’ve never seen a man so frozen in terror like he was. He went home a few days later. He couldn’t stop shaking. I guess he felt bad about it because he sent us postcards for a few years afterwards. They stopped coming after he got married.”

“Do you have to report submarine sightings?”

“These things get mentioned. Whether they get put down in writing is another thing entirely. You won’t fully appreciate this, but the more time you spend on the frontier, the less you’ll feel like a Canadian. National boundaries are still crystallizing out here.”

He took another deep swig from the bottle.

“I’m guessing that you’re not here for the long haul.”

“I’ve got a scholarship to study at Cambridge University in England but I’ve delayed it for a few years. I wanted to see some of the world first.”

“Let’s have a toast then. To Cambridge University. To a bright future on the horizon, and here’s hoping that it’s not just the sun glare off sea ice.”

Edwaker took another long drink. Choking and spluttering he proffered the bottle to Challis with an outstretched arm. With his other hand he wiped his scarf against his chapped lips.

“Well if things don’t work out I guess I can always come back here.”

Edwaker turned his head and fixed him with milky blue eyes.

“You think this is something you still want to be doing in your forties? None of us long-termers are going home to wives or families. We’re out here because we have nothing keeping us anywhere else. My advice to you: Draw a line under this experience, go to university and move on with your life.”

Over the channel, the extended talons of a black and white eagle dragged a large struggling fish from between the tiny waves, hauling it skyward, against gravity and the current, on strong slow

Photography Credit: Jason Rice

Mark Sadler lives in Southend-on-Sea, in England. His writing has been performed by Liars’ League in London and has appeared, most recently, on The London Magazine website and also on the Kaleidoscope Healthcare website as part of the Writing the Future summer reading anthology.