They rowed on the lake at a different time each day. Usually at the long break or during a paper neither wished to hear. The small talk of the other delegates held no interest, or not anymore, so it was an easy decision to simply disappear for a while. Morning or afternoon, the mood of the lake seemed different every time as if to reflect their own, coalescing moods. Sometimes they were still rowing at dusk, almost dark by the time they came back. It was impossible to tell how deep the water was, but out in the middle it felt dark and deep and bigger than both of them. The lake was in another country and that partly explained how out-of-time and how vivid everything was. The light. The grass on the hill leading up from the boat house. The strange birds. These things were bright as a dream. They would take turns to row and herons would rise from the trees at the sound of the clattering oars, protesting at their trespass on the water.
They knew little about each other and their conversation, as they floated amongst lilies or turned in clumsy circles, revealed only brief details of their work and interests. What they thought of the ideas behind various seminars they had attended swiftly became uninteresting. They ruled it out of bounds. They only talked of their immediate lives. Here and now. He did not talk of the paper he’d been invited to deliver. Nor did she. They were both married to other people, but according to some tacit understanding this also had no place in their dialogue. They were here to work. Yet they had found this respite from work. Elsewhere was far away and almost long ago. It was the rowing that was important; the light and the air and the water. The breeze on their skin. The rowing was R and R, a serendipitous reward, as the conference descended into its own routines. The too-rich breakfast for instance, the shape of the sandwiches and their predictable garnishments. Each day they looked forward to the rowing. Messing about in boats. It was calming out on the lake, cleansed of distraction, where everything became utterly devoid of complexity; the complexity of needing to act. They simply floated. The idea of hurrying was left behind on the shore.
Sometimes the man and the woman walked around the lake, but there was mud, and nettles. You had to be in the mood for mud and nettles. They preferred the boat, an old burnished wooden rowing boat with an ornate metal backrest on the seat for the passenger, the sound of ripples lapping against the – what were they called – sides? It seemed to have been made for champagne and strawberries. The sun on the water. Sometimes a bird he did not recognise would land on the – yes! – the gunnels, and consider them. The woman would know its name. That a bird and a woman could look at each other so intently for so long was something that amazed the man, who was called Dean. His story did not exactly translate into this foreign environment. They did not take food, as attractive as a picnic might have sounded. The convenors of the conference, those responsible for his travel and his accommodation, had organised the catering well so they could have taken food if there’d been a need, (those omnipresent sandwiches), but there was no need. Food was another distraction. They would eat when they returned.
After half an hour or so they traded places, a delicate operation, and the oars where the other had gripped them retained the warmth. Their laughter drifted across the water like rippling light, thin and crisp as a winter memory. Ice crystals left after snowmelt. When the dusk began to gather amongst the trees they would return to the boat shed, each anticipating – no, that was wrong – each engaging the moment where one held the boat steady while the other clambered out, a tenuous balance, perhaps the accidental touch of hands, a jolt that would bring them back to what had become a slightly distant world. Then they would chain the boat up and return to the residence hall. Other people coming out of doorways. What was important was the rowing.
One day, out on the water, there was a great baying of hounds from among the trees surrounding the lake. It was, according to conference gossip, the first day of the hunting season. Dean laughed. Hunting season? Was there still such a thing? It had the echo of childhood about it, a bugle tootling in the distance. Rabbit season! Duck season!
They could not see the dogs, but could follow their progress through the forest, the disembodied noise of them. It might be a deer, or perhaps it was a fox they were after. All these things were a little mysterious to Dean. Perhaps they were just running willy-nilly through the trees. There seemed to be no human account of the hounds.
At the long conference dining tables they would eat apart, pursuing other agendas, (working the room, pressing the flesh), yet both were aware of how the other sat, what they were now wearing having freshened up, how they were occupied. There were often speeches. Presentations. Dean gave his talk and was applauded. People spoke to him afterwards, wanting to stay in contact. That evening someone discovered that one of the dogs, a grey-muzzled beagle, had turned up at the door of the residence hall. It had been left behind by the pack during the hunt. Limped its way to the nearest light. It slept outside on the lawn all night and all the next day. Frost settled on it. Catherine, the woman, gave it a slice of bread. Someone else a bowl of milk, a boiled egg , and lo and behold, its life was saved. The caretaker, a balding man called Teddy, asked what the feck they had done that for? No one would come to claim it back. It was useless. And they were useless for feeding it. Teddy was what they called a character, a cantankerous, earthy villain in a rustic costume drama, perhaps involving a whiff of silage. He had never, he said, met a more useless bunch of widgets in all his born days. He would have to get rid of it. People laughed at the caretaker and assumed he was joking, but by nightfall the dog was gone. Dean recalled his own dog, or rather the family’s dog, which had had to be put down not so long ago, to everyone’s dismay. The life of dogs, what could you say? Teddy was the one who had originally told them about the boat and where they could find the key to the shed. In their inadvertent secrecy they thought that Ted understood about conferences, that is, the need to get away from them.
On the lake they left little whirlpools behind where the oars dipped and dragged through the water. Pulling right turned you left; pulling left turned you right. It was worse than learning to drive. Light caught each dripping pearl, each drip a note of music. One morning, the penultimate morning, during yet another power point presentation they had discretely managed to avoid, when they unchained the boat from its wall hook in the boat shed, they found three spent shotgun cartridges in the bottom of the dinghy. They were blue. It was like a declaration. Dean held one to his nose and smelled it. Someone had taken their boat out and been shooting. Neither of them had heard such noises during the night, but the after-dinner shenanigans were, as usual, raucous. There was always wine and sometimes music, and last night – dancing. The perfume of liqueurs. What thieving duck shooter, they wondered, had been gallivanting about in their boat? It left them with a fleeting sense of violation. The boat had been their little secret. No one else had wanted to go out in it, and Dean hadn’t offered. Perhaps it was the caretaker, but there were plenty of local farms about the place with people who might have borrowed it. Perhaps Ted had tied a brick to the old, grey, useless dog out over the deep water. There were probably eels down there to take care of a treat like that. Catherine did not want to think about it. They imagined eyes in the woods at the edge of the lake, the overhanging trees leaning into their own reflections. The boat rocked wildly as they gripped each other’s arms stumbling into it.
Soon they steadied. They decided to forget about anything else. The calm of the water returned, and with it their own calm. A little push and they began to glide out into the heart of the lake. It was almost a feeling of belonging. The world faded away, as it had done every time this last week-and-a-half when the water summoned them. That was the ritual. It was a ritual of being in that moment. They rowed and talked in soft voices, although perhaps there was no need even for that. Birds came to examine the boat, swallows, Dean recognised that much, scissoring through the air around them. He wondered what might happen if he kissed her. Not here in the boat, that would be awkward, but back on dry land, after dinner. How might she react? She might turn her face away. She might slap him. She might fall into his arms. It was a complete unknown. She might burst into butterflies, or shards of glass.
The water licked at the boat’s hull with a smooth sound that felt very old. The lake’s surface shivered. Then he began to wonder what might happen if she kissed him? What would he do? They might never see each other again, and this seemed to require some acknowledgement, some seizing of the moment. In this quiet moment his throat filled with momentary panic. Please don’t let it all be ruined now at the end. Looking at her face he realised he was both wary and intrigued at the thought of it. What if? He understood again that he had no idea what he would do. Perhaps nothing. Perhaps he might catch fire? He rather liked the sensation of the dilemma, or the recollection of the sense of it. The turmoil in his mind nothing but the fizzing of a few synapses. His memory strained to recall if this was the first dull pulse of – what? – longing? As a precursor to love? How melodramatic. Where did that come from? Rather, was it not good old fashioned lust? So far from home, no one knew him, all the rules changed, his identity might well be left in a cupboard for a while. No, that didn’t feel right either. That simplicity was too reduced. Perhaps it was merely nostalgia? For what had he to go back to? Wasn’t love supposed to be something ephemeral, intensely passionate, that boiled you in acid, which you remembered forever? Or was it something that you took for granted, (and gave), which sustained you, unquestioning, accepting of all your flaws? And what if it was neither of these? Dean loved chocolate, but it didn’t boil him in acid. What if, he wondered, it was something he had never experienced? What he had with Shona was something that felt entirely different. Something that had shattered into a thousand pieces, so it would seem. What then was left? A boat on a lake, the oars made warm by another’s hands. He felt as if his heart had sighed, his aorta opening up with a rush of feeling. Why did everything have to be contained so? Why not another world?
Too many questions. That was the problem. Not enough answers.
The wake of the boat spread out behind them like a whispered blessing. He needed a distraction. In this other world the birds vied for his attention. Catherine knew their names. A heron stood like a sentinel on its brittle legs in the tallest tree. He told himself he would always remember this, the warm oars, the design of the backrest behind her, the bird in the tree. They glided through the dark water. Suddenly the heron squawked, and Dean thought it might have been an imprecation. He saw something, puffed and ragged, caught amongst the reeds at the edge which could have been a plastic bag, but might also have been a floating beagle. He steered away from it, heard himself asking:
‘Do you have any children?’
They both felt it a strange question to present on the last day. In a way it dislocated the boat’s intimacy, their occasional voices, and the silence when they drifted. It somehow fractured the unspoken pact that excluded the places they had came from and, in a way, the sky almost stopped.
‘No,’ Catherine answered, gazing at last towards the reeds, the shadows between the trees. ‘Why would you ask that?’
After a while she continued, ‘I had a miscarriage once. There were complications. So now…’
She let the words hang over the water, ‘now it’s too late.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
‘We’re used to the idea. It was very painful.’
Dean thought, in the face of her discomfort, I don’t need to know. But he continued to listen in case she was about to unburden. He would do that.
Her face was still turned towards the shore. He thought she looked suddenly beautiful.
She said, ‘I’ve never told anyone that before.’
Blue dragonflies hovered around them, skimming over the water’s surface, shimmering.
‘It must be my turn to row.’
They changed places carefully, keeping their centre of gravity low, so as not to capsize. The handles of the oars were smooth. The tendons in her arms stood out as she ploughed through the water back towards the jetty and the boathouse. Rain clouds seemed to be caught in trees on a distant hill. She did not look over her shoulder to check where they were going. She was focussed on the physicality of her muscles and the oars and the resistance of the water. The blue shotgun cartridges rolled about in the bottom of the boat. Dean thought about tossing them over the side, or putting them in his pocket, but neither seemed to be the right thing to do. He was reminded that too often he was unsure what, exactly, was the right thing to do. Or when to do it. Sometimes the moment seemed lost, even before it had arrived, which was precisely what he valued in the boat. The moment was there. Nowhere else. It didn’t need explanations. When he thought about it all his mistakes seemed to have been made by someone else.
She had to work against the breeze which chopped the surface into coruscating wavelets. After a while she stopped rowing and their momentum carried them through the water, gliding perfectly, passing through patches of chilled air, their wake opening behind them, now like the departing flight of a dozen geese. She said:
‘My husband is an angry man.’
She spoke to the hills. Her lips parted. Breathing. Her arms were brown. The backs of her hands had freckles like spots of rusty rain. Dean wondered, After my own father, what am I? The shadows at the edge of the lake seemed menacing today, but they could see no one, hear nothing except the trickle of water, the mumble of oars in the oarlocks as she adjusted them. He did not know how to prolong this moment, this ending. He felt that she was the only person in a long time who had listened to him. He felt known. He felt forgiven. There was still a long way to go back to the boathouse, so he told her about his wife, his children, whom he missed very much and who didn’t, so it seemed, want him back.