To Arthur’s eyes, speckled with dim cataracts, and to his mind that was slowly untethering itself from solid ground, the green tour boat drawing alongside the little wooden quay floated like an exotic dragonfly he’d once watched hovering and dipping amongst banana trees in Burma. As the boat drew closer, it disrobed from its hazy disguise and presented itself whole and ordinary, inviting in the way that only real things can be.
Margaret huffed, again, at the prospect of getting her doddery dad onto this slippery and farcical vessel, for an unneeded trip out into the waves and spray of a mere waterfall, a waterfall blind and deaf to her fear of the water. Did the waterfall know or care how long it took to craft her thinning hair into a careful bouquet of precise waves and curls? Hell no. Dad’s bucket list was a bucket of inconvenience. Nor did it matter that her children Johnny and Cassie were there to help heave the old sack of thin bones and wasted muscles onto the ‘pleasure craft’. It was supremely important that she owned all the martyr’s hassle.
“All aboard Lady Niagara!” cried the skipper, his voice liked a grated trombone.
At his turn, Arthur shuffled down the gangplank, one arm through Johnny’s, his stick precarious on wet wood; Cassie hovering behind for the back swoon possibility; Margaret fizzing with delectable irritation, waiting with a long planned ‘told you so’ for the inevitable moment when her dad’s ambition outstripped his strength. Alas, Johnny got him safely on deck and sitting squint on a damp blue plastic seat.
“Is this how you imagined it would be, Grandpa?” Cassie asked. Evidently Cassie had opted for fondness and forgiveness of sweet grandpa today. What happened to mother and daughter unite against thoughtless patriarch?
Arthur nodded and smiled with one side of his grey face.
People piled on, a kaleidoscope of raincoats and umbrellas, red and orange and purple. To Johnny, it seemed that every one of them made a beeline for him, their messy unpredictable bodies entering his safe zone, wafting foreign breath and sweat particles towards him, breaking all manner of rules. For comfort, he told himself (the voice of Professor Johnny, all logic, no fear) that the millions of river droplets swirling about him would be colliding with dirty moth and body molecules, batting them away from his clean aura. Nonetheless, the people closing around him on the too-small boat were compressing his lungs and squeezing fear from his amygdala. This was far too different from the dry sterile lab at the university with its daily task list impeccably sequenced and his colleagues’ shared distaste for proximity. What was it his therapist had suggested? Distraction. Count backwards from 100 in 7s. Too easy. He could do that in his sleep. Conversation. Make one happen.
“So, Cassie. How’s, em, how’s the PhD going? Abigail’s I mean.”
“It’s Aubrey, Johnny. Like I’ve told you a gazillion times.” She glared for a few moments then topped it off with a citric stare into the middle distance. Johnny could never remember the names of Cassie’s partners, especially since they all seemed to inhabit the same dusty scene of codified art and liberalism-as-straightjacket. He saw Cassie so rarely that each time there was a new soulmate, another name to forget. Cassie’s soul was a pinball.
“Aubrey. Aubrey,” Johnny incanted. “How’s Aubrey’s PhD going?”
“Well, if I have to get dragged round one more dry and dusty abandoned stately home or vintage bookshop I might as well write the damn thing myself.”
Cassie saw that her grandpa was watching her. Listening? Surely not. It seemed to them all that he had given up listening around the time that the nursing home confiscated his radio for playing the shipping forecast too loud in the wee hours of the morning. And listening needed comprehension, but the old man’s glazing eyes said he was moving off into some distant realm.
The boat glided into the huge swirling pool where Niagara’s glory gathered, each drop’s greatest adventure over, ready now to traverse more mundane meanderings on their way to Lake Ontario. Arthur stared, transfixed by the roar, the cascade of energy, the super-abundance of gravity’s pull. He held a bony hand to his forehead to shield his eyes from the spray, to see better with what little vision he had left.
“Wet! Very wet!” he cried to his family.
Cassie grinned. Margaret rolled her eyes. Johnny leaned lower to the old man, careful not to touch the sodden deck with his knees.
“Can you see that misty cloud above the falls, Grandpa?” he shouted, pointing upwards.
“Kind of ironic. It’s called cataractagenitus. Literally means made from a cataract. And you know, you’ve got cataracts. But you can see it. The cataract cloud. It’s kinda funny, don’t you think?”
Arthur nodded sagely as it was best to do when his crazy grandchildren shouted things he did not understand. Besides, Arthur’s attention had taken flight. He was riding a canoe down the river, bearing straight for the Falls, holding his breath as the river fell off the edge of the earth and his canoe body and his own body were sent plunging, screaming, deadweight hurtling until water hit hard and he was tumbling, ripped ragged, flailing in chaotic plunge pools.
The boat took them as close as grated trombone voice would allow, and the great looming cliffs surrounded the tinder stick boat and the churning plunge pool sent froth and upheaval in the direction of the safe and scheduled $17 adventure-lite.
“Can we bloody well go now?” muttered Margaret, gripping her hood tightly round her precious hair-do. “That’s the last one on the list.”
And for Arthur it was the last on his list. And the realisation brought redder blood pumping hard from his heart, his body surging for more, whilst his mind was dropping memories and dripping word meanings and spilling names. It seemed then to Arthur that the falls were in him and of him, casting off billions of droplets in solidarity with the life he was leaking.
As the boat returned to shore, Cassie and Johnny shared a look, for they had seen Grandpa’s eyes fall and his lips curl down as the magic passed. Margaret was contorting her body to look at her phone whilst keeping it dry. Small talk began to ripple again through the passengers. Wonder, like always, being burst like balloons as the party ends.
At the quay, they disembarked slowly. Margaret suffered a momentary lapse into grace.
“Shall we get a photo together?” she asked.
A passing man was handed the phone. Japanese; bound to be good with cameras. The four gathered into a ragged line near the canopy of the little ticket office, with the heaving falls at their back. Arthur looked around, something caught his eye, and he shuffled them all a step to their right. As the Japanese in his orange cagoule fiddled with the focus, Arthur lifted his walking stick, slow and trembling, behind the back of his daughter, her hood now down, her head tilted to showcase her best waves. Arthur raised his stick like a last salute, and shoved it hard into the sagging canopy and the little pond fell gleefully over them all so that Margaret shrieked with indignity that morphed instantly into rage when she turned and saw the guilty stick and Johnny froze as the frigid water violated his barriers and Cassie yelped before letting out a giggle.
Arthur smiled at the camera the Japanese was still holding, paralysed.
“Wet. Very wet,” said Arthur.
Grab a Ticket
To help raise money – ensuring that we can continue to do what we do, helping new and emerging writers – we’re raffling off a copy of the recent Women’s Prize for Fiction winner: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Tickets are just 50p, and the raffle ends either when all tickets are sold, or on Sunday 27th September.
About The Author
Lewis lives in Glasgow and is relatively new to fiction writing. He works as a psychologist in the NHS and has two kids who write more imaginative stories than he does. He is currently seeking representation for his first novel, working on a second novel, and submitting further short stories for publication. He also makes electronic music in his attic.
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