A Punt Across the Thames

A Punt Across the Thames

One of the best things I can recall from my childhood days is first time each summer we saw the punt resting low at its moorings, ready for another busy season transporting day-trippers across the river Thames.
“Look, mum!” I cried out, the instant I spotted it. “The punt’s back!”
Mum, however, gazed at it with as much love as distain.
“Can we go on it?” My brother Tony implored. “Can we go across the river, huh?”
“No, not today,” she told him.
“Why not?” he asked
Shepherding us past the punt, mum said, “It’s too cold.”
“I’m not cold!” my sister Maria insisted.
“I’m hot!” Tony persisted.
“I’m very hot!” I said, resisting mum’s efforts to steer us away from the punt.
“You will have hot bottoms – all of you,” she threatened, “if you don’t stop moidering me about that boat!”
We stopped moidering her about it, because hot bottoms and children do not sit well together.
The following Sunday was a beautiful day. The sun was hot enough to split rocks. “Can we go to the river, today?” I asked mum, when she had finished drying the dishes, after dinner.
“I don’t know,” she answered. Peering through the window, she said, “It might rain…”
“Rain!” I exclaimed, exasperated that she had said such a thing. “It’s not going to rain!”
Her eyes set firmly on the sky, mum said, “There’s a dark cloud out there…”
I ran into the garden, to see what the fuss was about. “That’s not a cloud,” I laughed. It’s Mr Slark burning his rubbish.”
Don’t contradict your mother,” dad warned, from where he was seated in front of the television set. “If she says it is a cloud, then a cloud it is.”
Following me into the garden, mum laughed heartily when she saw it, ‘the cloud’. “You are right, Gerrard,” she chuckled, “Mr Slark is burning his rubbish. C’mon it’s the perfect day for a trip to the river. Tell your brother and sister that we are going to there for a picnic.”
“Where are you going?” dad asked, as mum opened the front door half an hour later. “We’re going to the river, for a picnic” she told him. “I have the bag, see?” She lifted it, to show him. “Would you like to come with us?”
“Nah,” he answered. “Sure, it’s going to rain.”
“That was only the bonfire,” she told him. Mum’s words, however, had fallen on deaf ears, because dad’s attention had already returned to his beloved TV, and an old western film being shown on it.
As Tony, Maria and I walked along the street, on our way to the river, we had no idea how lonely mum felt, having to bring us almost everywhere on her own. Now dad wasn’t a bad man, it’s just that because he worked so hard during the week, he wanted to do nothing more strenuous at weekends other than a bit of light gardening on Saturdays, followed by loads of television viewing on Sundays. Despite understanding and accepting dad’s stance, mum still felt abandoned by him.
“Mum!” I said excitedly. “I can see the river!”
“Where do you see it?” Maria asked me.
“Behind that bus,” I told her.
Tony, however, said nothing, he was far too interested in the Ice Cream sign outside the shop we were approaching. Tugging at mum’s arm, Tony said,” Can I have an ice cream?”
Can I also have one, please?” Maria implored.
“And me too?” I begged her.
Exiting the shop a few minutes later, I licked my ice cream cone, with gusto. Proudly holding a choc-ice, Tony smiled from ear and to ear. Maria had an orange split; an iced lolly of perfection. Mum had also chosen an ice cream cone. Because it was so hot a day, we struggled to finish our icy delights before they melted into sweet pools of deliciousness at our feet.
Tony had the most difficulty, doing this. Although he tried to eat his choc-ice with speed and decorum, much of it ended on his hands and face. “Mum!” he grizzled. “Mum!”
Producing a handkerchief, as if out of nowhere, mum wiped his face and hands clean. I often wondered where she had them secreted, and how many of them she had about her person at any one time. I never found out, though.
Approaching a T-junction, where the traffic separated into two lanes, we waited for a break in the traffic.
“Come on,” mum said to us, “across the road, with you.”
Obeying her, we filed across the road like toy soldiers. The instant we reached the far side, however, we burst into cheers and then galloped away from her, into the park bordering the river.
“You have your hands filled, there,” an old man, who was sitting on a bench while smoking his pipe, said to mum.
“I most certainly do,” she answered. “But it’s worth it, to see them so happy.”
Patting the bench, he invited her to join him upon it. Mum’s face creased, worrying about us. “They will be fine. No harm can come to them, here,” he reassured her. “I’ll keep an eye on them for you. I have excellent eyesight, you know.” Mum sat down on the bench.
Puffing away happily on his pipe, the old man watched us as we ran about the park, playing contentedly with each other. “Not many men, here, are there?” he said to mum.
“No,” she answered, suddenly remembering dad.
“I blame it on that darn box,” the gnarled individual grumbled.
“I beg your pardon?”
“That’s what I call them boxes, television sets.”
“Oh…”
“I don’t have one,” he told her. “I have enough to keep me going, interested in, without a box in the corner of the room telling me what I should think.” Mum laughed. “By the way, the name is Joe,” he said, stretching his hand toward mum, “Joe Bond.”
“As in James Bond?” mum enquired.
“Everyone says something akin to that,” Joe chuckled. “Never seen the movie, though… Is it any good?”
“I heard that it is,” mum said to him, Seeing Tony and I run into each other, as we were playing Cops and Robbers, mum gazed at us worriedly from the bench.
“Tough as nails, at that age,” Joe told her.
“Do you have any of your own,” mum asked him, for she was intrigued by his childcare knowledge.
“Had seven of the ankle biters,” he answered, “and I love every one of them…”
“Where are they now?”
“With their children, I’d hazard a guess. I have twenty-three grandchildren,” Joe proudly proclaimed.
Warning to him, mum said, “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” he answered. “Darn it,” he grumbled.
“What’s wrong?”
“My pipe has almost gone out. Don’t worry, though, I will soon have it sorted.”
Having tired of Cops and Robbers, Tony, Maria and I sat on the grassy verge bordering the river. It was most surely a wonderful day. There were so many boats gliding along the glassy waters of the river we could have stayed there, watching them forever. Then we saw it, we saw the blue painted hull of the punt, further along the river. Running as fast as leopards, we returned to mum.
“Can we go on it, the punt, huh?” I asked her.
“Can we go across the river?” Tony begged mum.
“Yes, can we go?” Maria implored her.
“Of course, she answered.
“Hurray for mum!” we cheered loudly. “Hurray for the punt!” we cheered even louder.
“It was nice meeting you,” Joe said, waving mum goodbye.
“Thanks, it was nice meeting you too,” she told him.
“Where is it?” Mum asked, as we arrived at the punt’s mooring jetty.
A man, standing at the entrance with a black leather conductor’s bag, said to her, “It’s set off across the river. Don’t worry, though, it will return in no time at all.”
“That’s a relief,” mum answered.
“Do you want to purchase some tickets?” he asked.
“Yes, please,” she said to him. “One and three halves return.”
A few minutes later, Tony spotted the punt beginning its return journey. Jumping excitedly up and down, he said, “It’s returning, the punt is returning!”
It was. The blue painted craft, with its attendant, pushing his pole into the river’s muddy bottom, propelling it forward, was indeed getting closer. Finally, the punt, lying low in the water, bumped to a stop against the small jetty.
“Thank you,” the man with the pole said to the alighting passengers, “please come again.”
“Tickets, please,” the man with the conductor’s bag said as we approached the punt.
“Here they are,” said mum.
Tony, Maria and I stepped into the punt. We watched mum as she stepped nervously into the vessel, and then we laughed at her. We laughed again as mum considered what might be the safest place to sit in the punt. “It’s not the Titanic,” Tony said her.
When everyone was seated onboard, the man with the pole said, “Push us away from the jetty, sir.”
The man with the conductor’s bag pushed us away from the jetty. “You are free of the jetty, Captain Scott,” he told him.
“Captain Scott?” we gasped. “As in Captain Scott, the explorer?”
“But he is dead!” Tony whispered to us.
If the man with the pole heard what we said, he never let on that he did. As the cool, clear waters lapped and gurgled their way under the punt, we wondered what lay in store for us on the far side of the river.
As the punt slid serenely across the river, I dipped one of my hands into the water. As I trailed my fingers through it, I thanked my God for such a fine day.
Pushing his pole into the river bottom, the man walked the entire length of the punt, propelling it forward. Then, removing his pole, he returned to his original position, and started all over again.
Glancing into the water, where I was still trailing my fingers, I thought I saw something, something swimming about just below the surface. I thought it might be a fish. Feeling a bump, my attention was drawn away from the fish, to our arrival on the far side of the river.
“Mind your step,” the man with the pole advised.
Stepping onto the jetty, I was so happy to be on my favourite side of the river.
Mum faltered halfway between land and boat. “Watch your step,” the man with the pole advised.
“Come on, mum,” Maria urged.
“You can do it,” Tony said to her.
“Think of the picnic,” I said temptingly.
Taking a final, brave step, mum joined us on dry land. As I watched the rest of the passengers alighting, I truly believed the man with the pole had the best job in the world.
“Which way shall we go?” mum asked us.
“Left,” Maria chose.
“Right,” Tony chose even louder.
“Gerrard, which way do you want to go?” mum said, offering me the final say.
“Left, of course,” I answered.
“Then left it is,” mum said to us.
“Hurray!” Maria and I cheered.
Mum led the way forward. Tony held up the rear, a sulky expression etched on his face. Maria and I, however, ignored him.
Seemingly oblivious to Tony’s sullen mood, mum scorched the way forward, searching for the best place to hold our picnic. Pointing to a soft, grassy area, she said, “That is a nice spot.” Opening her picnic bag, mum produced a red and white checked tablecloth. Having laid the tablecloth on the ground, she removed the picnic goodies from out of her bag. We had orange squash, crisps, biscuits and rosy red apples to clean our teeth after the feast.
Delving a hand into her bag, mum searched for her book; the latest Mills and Boon novel. Having found it, she lay into the soft grasses, ready for a good read. We, however, had other, more adventurous ideas on our minds – like exploring!
“Don’t go too far,” mum warned us, as she opened her book.
Although we heard her words of advice, we took little or no notice of what she had said. Didn’t she know we were daring explorers, with dark, undiscovered continents to find?
“Are you coming, Tony,” Maria asked.
Tony, however, still wanted to go in the other direction. He groaned, “It’s not fair. We always go this way…”
“You know that’s not true,” she told him, “The last time we were here, we went in the other direction, your direction.”
“I don’t remember that,” he answered morosely.
I knew only too well that he did, but chose not to say so for fear of an even greater sulk coming on.
“Are you coming?” Maria asked him again.
“All right,” he grumbled, “but I want to see the canal – and the weir.”
We agreed – anything for peace.
Maria was the oldest, at eleven, I was next, at nine, and
Tony was the youngest; he was only seven years of age. To someone raising children nowadays, it might seem foolhardy, allowing three children to go exploring so close to a river and canal. These, however, were innocent days, when matters of health and safety were far from most people’s minds. Moreover, despite all of the playing and exploring we did, we never had an accident. They were good days…
We explored; deep within the high gasses we were Captain Scott crossing the Arctic, pirates marauding our way through the Caribbean, and also mutineers of the Bounty. Tony visited the canal and the weir, Maria collected loads of shells at the water’s edge and I found a genuine fossil. It was brilliant.
The sun sinking low in the sky signalled to us that it was time to find mum. “It’s time we were going home,” Maria said to Tony and me.
“That means another ride on the punt!” Tony and I cheered. Life was good, them; in fact it had never been better.
“Mum!” we called out upon our return.
“What is it, my darlings?” she asked hugging us with affection.
“We saw the canal – and the weir,” Tony told her.
“And look at these shells,” Maria said to her.
Looking into her bucket, mum said, “There’re a bit whiffy,”
Maria stared disappointingly into her bucket, and then she said, “I’ll wash them again in the river.”
“That will have to wait until later, when we are home,” mum told her. “Help me to pack the bag, for we must be off.”
Maria and Tony helped her to pack the bag. I, however, stood still and silent, watching them do it.
Seeing this, mum said, “Is everything all right, Gerrard?”
“You never asked me what I found,” I explained.
“Oh, I’m so sorry, my dear,” she said to me. “Did you find something?”
“Yes…”
“Can I see it?”
“Here,” I said, handing her what I had found.
“That’s beautiful! What is it?” I told her that it was a fossil. “It must be thousands of years old,” she said as she returned it to me.
“It’s millions of years old,” I proudly informed her. “It’s at least sixty-five million years old – perhaps even more!”
Looking at her wristwatch mum said, “Come on, we have a punt to catch…”
The man with the pole helped mum aboard. Following her lead, Tony, Maria and I stepped aboard. Because it was the last trip of the day, the punt was crammed full of people, perhaps a bit too full. The man with the pole, however, didn’t appear to notice. We set off away from the jetty.
There were still quite a few pleasure boats about. They avoided our fragile punt. It was an unwritten law of the river. Having offered my seat to a woman who had up until then nowhere to sit, I sat on the sloping bow. Although he gave me an un-approving look, the man with the pole did not reprimand me for doing this.
By the time we were halfway across the river, I was sore from sitting on the hard wood of the bow. I shuffled about, trying to make myself comfortable. For a few minutes this tactic worked, but then cramp attacked one of my legs. I stood erect in the punt, trying to make the pain go away.
“What are you doing?” the man with the pole asked me. I tried to explain, to tell him what I was doing, but a boat suddenly sped past, barely missing us in the process. Then its bow wave slammed hard into our vessel. Losing my balance, I fell over the side of the punt and into the water.
The current was strong, and it soon carried me away from the punt. “Stop the boat!” mum shrieked. “Gerrard fell into the water! Save him!”
The man with the pole, however, had no way of following me downstream; the best that he was able to do, to help me, was implore those passing in boats, to go save me.
One of the boats suddenly stopped, and then turning round, it made a beeline for my head, bobbing up and down in the watery distance.
Seeing this, Tony and Maria cheered. Although I was a distance away from the punt, I heard them. I tried to stay up in the water. Warbling it’s greeting, the boat arrived alongside me just as I disappeared under the water for a third time.
I gasped for air.
Mum screamed.
Tony blinked.
Maria trembled.
A fish of some description swam past me.
A hand grabbed hold of me. It pulled me out of the water. I was saved.
“There you are, misses, he is safe and sound,” my rescuer, it was am man, said to mum, when he brought me to the jetty a few minutes later.
“Thank you, thank you,” mum sobbed. “I feared I had lost him.”
“He’s a tough cookie,” the man told her. “It will take more than a dunking in the Thames to finish that one off.” Having said that, he gunned the throttle and sped away from the jetty.
Slapping me across the back of my head, mum said, “That will teach you to go standing up in the punt.”
“Ow!” I hollered. “That hurt!”
“It was supposed to! I don’t know what your dad will say to you, I really don’t, coming home in those wet clothes.” Luckily, it was still warm and my clothes were dry by the time we got home.
Did dad find out about my unfortunate accident on the river? Well, mum told him nothing about it, nor did Maria. And I certainly said nothing about it.
Tony? What about Tony? Do you think he said anything about it? Let me put it this way, for the remainder of the summer, every time we visited the far side of the river, we turned right.

THE END

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