The Red Canoe
Helen was unexpectedly single. Her Hero from the Antipodes had let her down: she had been too this or too that, she supposed, or maybe not enough this or not enough that. His eyes had glazed over when she spoke about the things she really cared about. Was he now squatting by the billabong, regretting his action, thinking that she was as rare as a duck-billed platypus and twice as interesting? Probably not. So she’d have to fettle up. She really did need to move on.
What to do? The usual websites were gross. Plenty o’ Fish was just for people who wanted sex. There were some websites about men who liked fishing and who posed with their catches, but they were quite frightening, particularly the one with the conger eel. There were some about men who grew giant vegetables, but again, they clearly thought that size was everything. No, what she wanted was someone to see her, to know her, to love her. Where was such a one to be found?
Disconsolate, Helen decided to take her red canoe out for a spin on the canal. Let the boat and the water make the decision for her. That was what Cobbett had done when he started to write Rural Rides: he had thrown the reins on the horse’s neck and followed its whim. He had been gratifyingly rewarded. So be it. It was a hot afternoon in Spring, and the birds had begun to build their nests.The air was soft, and there were mares’ tails in the sky. The buds were about to burst. The May blossom was brave already: it was singing.
On and on she drifted in her canoe, as if in a dream. There was a bend in the canal, and she saw a young man standing on the towpath. She paddled up to him, and stopped quite close to the verge. He bore an uncanny likeness to her eldest son, and she felt exasperated : did she really need to engage in the Family Romance? But on closer inspection, he was much taller and much older than her son, although with the same intent gaze. He had surrounded himself with objects: smoked salmon sandwiches with the crusts cut off, fairy cakes on flowery plates, pieces of bright glass, swatches of soft material. On either side of him sat a fox: a young dog fox on his right, with a keen eye and bushy tail, and a young vixen on his left, with a big belly and full teats that oozed milk onto the ground. There were two buckets and a bird-cage, and a book. Helen realised that the young man was like a bower bird. He had made this assemblage for her, to attract her, to stimulate her love. And it was beginning to work.
He lifted up the first bucket, and Helen saw it was full of minnows in water. He poured them into the canal, and they swam away. The second bucket contained frogs, and he tipped them gently onto the grass. They hopped off, glad of their freedom. He picked up the birdcage and opened its door, and the little prisoners soared away into the bright air. He took the book in his hand, turned to a page marked with a leaf, and began to read aloud:
“O my America! my new-found land,
My kingdom, safest when with one man manned,
My mine of precious stones...”
His voice died away on the wind. Helen held out her hand to him: “come into the red boat”. He shushed the foxes away - “go now!” - and passed her the book and the little plates of food and the soft cloth. He stepped nimbly in and took the paddle she offered. They steered the boat round and paddled in perfect harmony. It was time to go home.