We’d been saving up for a down payment, a little something with a garden. I thought. And therein lay the crux: I was ready to nest-build; Sue still had itchy feet.
‘What are we anyway, birds?’ she said. ‘Nest. I ask you.’
We’d met in a Genealogy class, where we discovered that having Irish great-grandparents entitled us to Irish passports, hence freedom to live and work anywhere in the European Union. We were on the road in no time.
We plotted our trip from west to east, from one graveyard to the next, from the western most tip of Ireland to the north of Poland via Wales, England, Belgium, Spain, Luxembourg and Germany. There were births and deaths in dusty ledgers; sometimes there were headstones to match the names, but mostly the plots had long since been turned over. We recorded what details we found of our ancestors and moved on, by bus, by train, sometimes we hitched. The search for our past, for our ancestors, was a search for the future, for a place of our own. We earned what money we could along the way - we picked grapes in Spain and apples in Normandy; we taught English in Antwerp for three weeks (before we were discovered, neither of us had a clue).
It was on the trail of a Huguenot, the last space on Sue’s family tree, that brought us to Boppard on The Rhine. We’d been on the road for four months and were tired; tired of moving; tired of hostels; tired of sleeping with our valuables in our sleeping bags.
‘Boppard on The Rhine. As good a place as any to put down roots,’ I said.
‘What do you mean? As in, dig a hole?’ said Sue.
‘But wouldn’t it be fitting – to settle in the birthplace of Johannes Bierbaum, the one who took the boat to the promised land?’
‘Nah,’ said Sue, ‘nah.’
We found work at a place called Lorelei’s Rest. Sue chambermaided, I KP’ed. We bunked in a shed out back. Klaus, the owner, called the shed ‘Le Chalet’, he was a real comedian. We shared the shed with Kit and Kat, an Australian couple who ran the bar, and an Hungarian guy, Laszlo. Laszlo was Head Chef, or Only Chef, and spent most of the time sobbing on his bed. No one knew why, as everyone was monolingual, the Australians exceptionally so.
After six months of working and saving, Sue was coming round to my idea of settling down. I thought.
‘Come down to the pier,’ she said down the phone. ‘I want to show you a little something we just bought.’
‘This is what you call a little something?’ I said, looking at the barge.
‘Three grand,’ she said. ‘Where would you get it?’
‘Not even close,’ she said. ‘A mine.’ She said mine like it was a magic word. ‘And that’s what we’re going to call it,’ she continued. ‘Mine. Don’t you just love homophones?’
‘Sue, correct me, ’ I said, ‘but weren’t we looking for something with a foundation? Something, like, more stationary? And another thing, weren’t we going to consult, before making mayor purchases?’
‘Yes, yes, and yes,’ she said. ‘But come on, you never would have agreed.’
I answered her with a speechless kind of look, as she rolled up her sleeves like she was getting ready to fight.
‘But,’ I said, finally, ‘but, but-’
‘The engine needs work,’ she said, and disappeared below deck.
Her head reappeared.
‘Don’t just stand there having a sulkathon. Do stuff.’
‘But-’ I said, my arms still firmly folded.
‘You know how a broom works, yes? Well, I suggest you take it out of your ass and put it to its proper use.’
So maybe it wasn’t the right time to settle down. Or maybe Boppard on The Rhine wasn’t the right place? But, but the girl was the right girl, that was something I was in no doubt of. Not really in any doubt of. Okay, I wondered a little.
A stubborn layer of tar sat on the surface of the deck. The result, I supposed, of decades of dirty boots. Between shifts at Lorelei’s, I brushed and hosed the deck, then I scraped and brushed it again, and hosed, twice, three times. But apart from the calories I burned, the whole endeavour was a waste of time; the tar took on the consistency of gunge, it stuck to everything. Sue sighed a lot, when she surfaced from the engine room, but was otherwise reticent. Below deck, it took me fifteen hours to strip the living quarters of red wallpaper and blue linoleum. The previous owners were French. I used the linoleum to cover the deck-gunge.
‘Good move,’ said Sue, from around a door. The engine still sounded like someone in the final stages of emphysema.
Klaus, Laszlo, Kit and Kat passed by regularly, like they were involved in some kind of relay between the dock and Lorelei’s Rest. They’d wave, and raise thumbs in encouragement. It was good to see Laszlo getting out, he even baked a pie once, a fish pie with mashed potatoes on top. Kit and Kat helped out too, Kat sewed curtains for the portholes, Kit gave me lessons in using Klaus’ power tools.
I turned my attention to the sleeping quarters, doubting that our houseboat would ever be a love-boat. The walls were adorned with pages from bygone magazines. They showed coal mines and miners, refineries, slack heaps, and yellowed pin ups of Samantha Fox.
Then it happened. First there was silence, complete silence, the first in a month. I guessed the engine had died, but then it began to hum, softly, and the humming grew, and grew some more, until it purred like a loved-up tomcat. And there she was in the door, Sue. She looked good, greased-up in overalls, wrench in one hand, cigarette in the other.
‘I’m impressed,’ I said, ‘you really showed that sucker.’
Inhaling deep on the cigarette, she kicked off her Caterpillars and let her overalls fall to the floor. There was nothing much underneath in way of clothing.
‘I want to test a theory,’ she said, ‘that winners have better sex.’
‘And?’ I said after.
‘It was good,’ said Sue, smoking again. ‘But fixing the engine was better.’
‘I didn’t know you were mechanically inclined,’ I told her. ‘You’re full of surprises.’
‘Oh, yeah,’ she said, looking all mysterious.
We planned our exit from Boppard for the end of Carnival, German Mardi Gras. We’d follow the Rhine till it met the Danube and go east till Europe ended. Until then, there would be little rest at the Lorelei. Clubs and fraternities had booked the place out, some of them years in advance. I learned that Germans take Carnival and being silly very seriously. For two long weeks, 24/7, Boppard on The Rhine was firmly in the hands of revellers of a different rub, most dressed as clowns. Which was unfortunate - monks, but especially clowns, never fail to freak me out. And here I was in Rednose, formerly known as Boppard. Of course clowns have to eat and drink and shop and park the car somewhere, just like normal folk. But seeing them do everyday stuff was especially disturbing. I was continually startled - there was one - standing in line at the checkout, eating bratwurst, smoking outside a bar, sitting mournfully over a beer, pushing a pram. Actually, the mournful one in the bar was kind of okay. Others though: driving, jogging by the water, holding hands, kissing. Kissing. With tongue. In clown regalia. There is a German word – fernweh – which means the opposite of homesick. I was ready to leave Boppard on The Rhine.
I spent what time I could working on Mine. I became adept in the use of the electric sander. Klaus got us a deal on varnish, the place began to smell of class.
It was time to say goodbyes to Lorelei’s Rest. There was schnapps and there were hugs, Laszlo baked a pie. The whole evening was a complete anti-climax, we were in bed by eleven.
‘Passport, cash, condoms?’ checked Sue.
‘I guess we’re about ready, then. Goodnight.’
I woke at ten, unsure of my origins or whereabouts, and rolled onto the floor, clutching my head.
I should have seen it coming, the thought that rose and sobered me – she’s gone. Second and third thoughts did not delay – she’s taken the boat – I’ve been duped. That’s when I realised that I cared more for my investment than I did for her. I felt guilty ten minutes later, at the pier, the barge still there. Sue’d spike a guy’s drink, but she wasn’t a thief. There was a Post-it stuck in a porthole: I’m gone, I’m sorry. I’m taking Laszlo with me. Bet you never guessed. This isn’t about you. It’s about me. Auf wiedersehen. Full of surprises, always with the surprises.
I showed the note to Klaus, Kit and Kat.
‘There’s no way you could have seen it coming, mate,’ said Kit, his arm around my shoulder. ‘Nobody could have, it sucks.’
‘This means I’m short of staff,’ said Klaus. ‘If you’re interested in
staying on, I could train you up to Head Chef. Think about it. Boppard
on The Rhine is as good a place as any to put down roots.’
[Forever after at http://eyeshot.net/rhineroots.html]
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