Before we start the story, a few housekeeping items first.
Back in March, when I started on The Eighty-eighth Key, the thinking went something like this: let’s write a short story and wrap it up in about 10 to 15 chapters. Then a funny thing happened (well, actually, not funny at all): the virus hit and like many of you I went into hibernation mode. What’s relevant here and now about that? Well, I now had a lot of time on my hands and what better way to occupy said hands than by writing. Ten chapters turned to twenty, then thirty, and now 88 is headed for fifty. C’est la vie, I guess. Same with this story; the original outline I came up with looked like a simple three to four chapter story in the making, but here we are, lost in Pandemicland, so why not stretch it out a little? I’d like to wrap up 88 in the next month or so, so maybe up to fifty chapters, but keep in mind that little short story is now over 400 pages long! Come Alive won’t be that long, I promise. I’m thinking somewhere between 15 and 20 chapters. Hopefully.
Anyway, a few divergent thoughts. Movies and music…the two most potent elixirs we turn to most often here in Pandemicland.
Seen any good movies lately? If not, consider a few classics to get you through these long winter nights. Try The Barefoot Contessa, the original with Humphrey Bogart and Ava Gardner. This film came out during the height of 1950s censorship, and keep that in mind when you look at the subtexts in this one: a beautiful woman with what we might call ‘animal passions’ goes from Spanish dance floor to Hollywood, then from the French Riviera to the Amalfi coast – where she meets the man of her dreams. Finally. The end of this film ought to leave you breathless – if you get into the storyline, anyway.
Another classic to see you through a winter’s eve: The Petrified Forest, with Leslie Howard, Bette Davis, and Bogart again. Nothing hotter than the desert southwest in the depths of the Great Depression, the action in this one takes place inside a gas station/diner, and Howard’s performance is one for the ages. Possibly the greatest romance story ever put to celluloid.
The last classic I’ll mention this time out is Dodsworth, a classic in every sense of the word. With John Huston, William Wyler directed this adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’ novel. This is a gut-punch to watch, a slow motion train wreck if ever there was one, but it has a happy ending (hey, this is Hollywood, right?) worth wrapping your heart around. If you’ve never seen this one you have missed the boat, literally.
Got Netflix? Check out Our Souls at Night, with Robert Redford and Jane Fonda together again (go back to Barefoot in the Park to see their first effort together). This latest effort finds a soft spot in us older folks, but what starts out as a simple dilemma turns into a complex symphony of choices and consequences. Powerful stuff.
Also on Netflix, The Highwaymen. Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson chasing Bonnie and Clyde, and while we all know how this one ends, the sparkling thrust and parry between the two leads in reason enough to catch this one.
Got Amazon Prime? Here are a couple of sci-fi flicks you might have missed that provide a good reason to reignite your passion for popcorn. The first is titled, simply, Cosmos, and it revolves around three amateur astronomers out in the woods with their telescopes who run across something strange. This one is the complete opposite of what you’re thinking right now, too. More cerebral than anything else, it’s worth a watch.
Also on Prime, The Vast of Night. Weird from start to finish, this movie breaks a lot of new ground from a cinematographers standpoint, and took home more than a few honors from indie film festivals last year. Set in the 50s, this film latches onto the vibe created by many classic sci-fi films from that era and doesn’t let go – til the very end. Interesting and fun at the same time.
Music matters, right? You’ll find a brief mention of this piece in the beginning of this chapter of Come Alive, and if you’re into the group Genesis you’ll be familiar with the work of Tony Banks, the long time keyboardist in the group. Well, Mr Banks also writes classical music, and two years ago he released an album called Five (and its on iTunes). The first track is called Prelude to a Million years (and you can give it a listen on YouTube). Talk about soft. Talk about chords I haven’t seen or used in decades. Sumptuous, sensuous, airy, breathtaking…or all of the above. The introductory chords leave me reeling in the years.
Now, on to the story. This is a long chapter so get a cup of tea, pull up the ottoman and settle in for a while. Hope you enjoy.
At five the next morning Taggart slipped the dock lines from their cleats; he hopped back onboard and into the cockpit, and there he put the transmission into reverse. Using the bow thruster, he kept Time Bandit centered in the slip as he backed-down into the marina’s entrance channel, then he pointed the bow upriver and motored towards Gothenburg’s city center, running at 1900RPM and making almost seven knots through the water. Running with the tide and an hour before slack water, he hoped to be free of the city and its heavy shipping traffic before the morning crush.
And once again he didn’t wake Dina or Rolf. Truth be told, he admitted to himself while standing up at the wheel as he motored through the city, he liked being out here alone in the early morning. He usually sailed while listening to Gregorian chant, but he’d picked up a new album by Tony Banks and listened to a new track – Prelude to a Million Years – as he looked at the old town and its ancient church spires as they drifted by.
A few minutes later Dina came up the companionway steps carrying two cups of cinnamon tea and a few orange/walnut scones she’d baked late the night before.
“You are a miracle and I love you,” he said as she handed him a cup.
“I should take this as a compliment, no?”
“Yeah, but don’t let it go to your head.”
“I’ll do my best,” she sighed. “It seems very quiet out this morning.”
“Yes, it’s lovely out.”
“What is this music?”
“Tony Banks. Keyboardist for Genesis. He seems to be writing classical music these days.”
“It’s peaceful…” but she stopped speaking when she saw the look on his face.
He was scanning the river ahead, watching a small freighter backing into the main channel. “Damn, I forgot to set the radar to stand-by,” he said, shaking his head and flipping a switch, then pinching off a bit of scone and sipping some tea. “I heard a weather forecast an hour ago; it’s going to be very hot as we move inland, but it should be cooler on the lakes.”
“After the last few days of this cool weather I think hot would be most welcome. Their is a chill when the air is damp that makes me feel wretched.”
He nodded. “I feel it here,” he said, pointing to the incision on his breast, and his left armpit.
“Have you taken your medications yet?”
“Not supposed to until six.”
“I’ll go get them…”
“No…sit with me, please. It’s gorgeous, you know…” but he choked up, looked away.
“What is it?”
“The city…you…all of it. Just the moment, I guess.”
“I love you too,” she said, rubbing the top of his hand before she turned to look over the world beyond the confines of Time Bandit’s little cocoon.
There was enough wind to dapple the surface of the water, and even a few gulls were flying along above their wake, crying for fish, he assumed as he gauged the conditions around him. He turned the radar on and checked the way ahead for unseen traffic; the freighter was turning into the river but keeping to the correct side of the channel, and that was it…
“How far to the first lock?” she asked.
“About 50 kilometers, at a small town called Lilla Edet.”
“Do you plan to go all the way there today?”
“Not if I can help it. The first cute village we come to I’m shutting down the engine and tying off to a tree…”
She smiled, shook her head. “Stop and smell the roses, I think. Isn’t that the expression?”
“It is, indeed.”
They approached a massive bridge and Taggart eyed it nervously – as his mast height was almost 17 meters – but as the bridge was 22 meters he motored on. Still, both he and Dina stared at Time Bandit’s masthead as she went under the bridge, and he felt a moment of stark terror that passed as soon as they cleared the span.
“It always looks so close, closer than it really is,” he said.
“I guess you learn to trust the charts,” she added.
“There’s another big one just ahead, supposedly lots of cruise ships dock there.”
“Yes, the Götaälvbron. The bridge over the Göta älv river. Many tourists visit here in the summer.”
Rolf’s head popped up in the companionway; he was yawning and still wiping away the night from his eyes. “Where are we?” he asked.
“Coming up to the center of the city,” Dina said. “Get some clothes on and come rejoin the human race!”
He nodded and disappeared below.
“God,” she moaned, “they were at it all night again.”
“You should get some headphones for your phone. Music blocks it out nicely.”
“I swear that girl is insatiable, Henry.”
“Good for him. Valuable training for all life’s adventures.”
She shook her head. “Incorrigible. He will be ruined for life.”
“I think I need more coffee.”
“I have cherry scones in the oven,” she said, smiling.
“You’re assuming Rolf hasn’t already eaten them all.”
Her eyes went wide and she scurried down the companionway steps.
The Götaälvbron’s height was 18.3 meters so even lower than the first bridge, and this time he was sure the Vhf radio antenna scraped along the underside of the steel latticework. He visibly shuddered just as Dina came up the steps…
“Do you need your medicine?” she asked – then she saw the bridge and how close it was and her eyes went wide again. “That was much closer, wasn’t it?”
He nodded. “Close enough to just about make me shit my britches…”
She passed his cup to him, then she came up with a platter loaded with hot scones and put them on the cockpit table. “Well, I am happy you did not do this. Very messy.”
“Me too. No better way to ruin the day.”
“Are there many more such bridges?”
He shook his head. “Most are so low we have to radio ahead so they can be raised, even a few railway bridges. The next one is a railway bridge, the Marieholmsbron; I have to call them now.”
They had to wait for several trains to pass, then the bridges swung on a center-pivot to let them pass, and then the way ahead was clear.
“Is there a speed limit?” she asked.
“Ten knots here. Which is a lot faster than we can go. A few miles on it drops to five knots.”
“How fast will we go?”
“Five. No reason to go fast, is there?”
“I saw a control below for air conditioning. Does this boat have that?”
“Sorry, but yes, it does. I used it in Florida a lot.”
“How hot is it supposed to get today?”
“High 80s, Fahrenheit. The next several days could see days in the low 90s.”
She scowled. “This is unheard of so close to the sea.”
“The shape of things to come, I’m afraid.” He picked up a scone and held it under his nose. “Smells a little like heaven, ya know?”
“How warm is it now?” she asked.
“It is stuffy down below.”
“Well, we can open some hatches or I can fire up the a/c.”
“I will try hatches first.”
Clyde stepped into the cockpit then and barked twice. “Sorry, boy…you gotta use the Astro-turf this morning…Dina, can you take the wheel?”
He led the pup forward and pulled out an Astro-turf door-mat and tossed it down in the deck. Clyde looked up at him with disgust in his eyes, but he dutifully circled twice and dumped a load on the ‘grass’, then peed for good measure before he walked back to the cockpit. Taggart cleaned up the mess, scooping up the brown and washing away the yellow, then he went back to the cockpit. Clyde was eating his breakfast by that point, then he jumped up onto the seat next to Taggart and fell asleep.
They were just passing through the outskirts of Gothenburg – with industrial warehouses on one side of the river and parklands on the other – when Astrid and Rolf came topsides. Astrid said hello before moving up to the bow pulpit – her favorite place on the Bandit – while Rolf sat down and munched on a scone. He yawned and stretched, revealing a huge purple hickey on the side of his neck.
“Looks like you saw some real combat last night,” Henry said, pointing to his own neck.
“Oh, I got her back, inside her thighs.”
“Good man. Give as good as you get, I always say.”
Rolf leaned close, spoke with his voice just above a whisper: “She is not a so very interesting person, Henry. She is very, how do I say this, interested too much in music and sex.”
“I’m curious; did she bring any drugs on board, Rolf?” he asked, though he was suddenly quite serious.
“Yes, some pills, and I think some sort of stuff she injects.”
“I think maybe, yes, but I don’t know.”
“Okay, that’s a problem, Amigo. Police or the Coast Guard can confiscate this boat if illegal drugs are found onboard. And I am the one responsible, understand?”
“So my rule about illegal drugs is a simple one; either the drugs go, and I mean all of them, or she goes.”
“Understood. I’ll take care of it right now.”
“And Rolf, if you think she is dishonest, that she is lying about where she is keeping her drugs, she has to get off. I will pay for her to get home, but she has to leave.”
“Henry, I would think she should leave too, if that were the case.”
“Why do you say that, Rolf?”
“I think she is addicted. She has to go below and inject this stuff several times a day…”
“Where does she inject herself?”
“In the stomach.”
Taggart relaxed. “Can you bring her back here for a little talk?”
She came back and sat next to Clyde and scratched behind the pups ears. Clyde, of course, moaned before rolled onto his back – inviting her to scratch his belly.
“Rolf, why don’t you go below and help Dina for a moment.”
When Rolf was out of range he turned to Astrid. “I’m just curious, but are you a diabetic?”
She looked down and seemed quite embarrassed, but she nodded. “I didn’t tell Rolf – how did you know?”
“He told me he saw you injecting yourself in the stomach. He doesn’t know what that means, and he thought maybe it might be heroin.”
“Oh-my-God, no!” she whispered. “No, it’s not like that at all…”
“Type one or type two?”
“Type one, for almost fifteen years now.”
“The pills? For diabetes, too?”
“The Coast Guard has a rule…”
“Oh, Henry, I know all these rules. I have a letter from my physician authorizing me to have these things with me…”
“Okay, so you brought nothing illegal on board, right?”
“Yes, I promise this is true. We get checked at the hospital all the time…”
He nodded. “Ya know, I think Clyde loves you just a little.”
“He is so sweet.”
“Astrid, kids Rolf’s age are a little like pups. They are curious and can be empathetic, but they thrive on the truth.”
“I know, but many of the boys I have known have been turned off by me giving myself shots, even if it is just insulin…”
“Rolf isn’t like most boys, Astrid. You might keep that in mind before you think about moving on. And if you need to keep your supply in the fridge, go right ahead.”
“He’s a very special person, Henry. I could feel that right away.”
“Yeah, well, so are you. And I could feel that right away, too.”
“I keep wanting to tell you how much I appreciate being here, for you thinking about me enough to do this for me.”
“I’d say you’re welcome but the pleasure has been all mine. I thought you and Rolf might become friends, good friends, and maybe because I hoped something nice would work out between you.”
She nodded. “I think maybe I should go and have a talk with Rolf, don’t you?”
“I think so, but you should always do what you think is the right thing to do, Astrid. Follow your head and your heart, because that usually leads to the best outcome.”
As she went below Dina came up the companionway. “What was that all about?”
“Oh, nothing much. She’s type one and has some insulin with her, probably needs to put some stuff in the fridge.”
“What are you cooking down there? It smells outrageous!”
She smiled. “You’ll see, however I think we will be having an amazing lunch,” she said as she handed him his medications.
“Thanks. About five miles to a place called Agnesberg. That’ll be the last of the big city scenery for a while. Hopefully!”
“You know, in a way this is exciting. Settled and peaceful, yes, but what is around the next bend? You never really know, do you?”
He nodded. “In a car zipping along you’d never give this landscape a passing thought, but out here…? Nature feels invitingly raw when you drift along like this. How is it down below? Still stuffy?”
“There is a nice breeze coming through now. It is worse up here in the sun.”
“I’ll rig the bimini when we stop for the evening.”
“Is it this thing?” she asked, pointing at a large canvas rolled-up on some aluminum struts.
“Can I do it now?”
“Sure,” he said. “Might be better to sit in the shade, I reckon…”
“I think so too,” she said, grinning. He put on the autopilot and helped her set it up. “This is very, what? Formidable? Like it was made for heavy storms?”
“Yes, but it’s a little too short for me to stand up all the way. I need to get longer struts measured.”
“Ah yes, I see. How tall are you?”
“Six-three. Short by American standards these days.”
“Well, at least everything is in proportion,” she said, smiling at him – in reality, now trying just about anything to get him to laugh. He was becoming so serious now, so unlike himself…
He smiled a little, then looked up at her. “Tonight, maybe?”
“Yes, we must compete with the olympic screwing team up front!”
“Maybe I should get a testosterone shot and some Viagra. That would put us back in the running, wouldn’t it?”
And that made her laugh. “I think maybe my labia are not so tough as hers. Now, I must go tend to my lunch…”
He switched off the autopilot just as Rolf came up into the cockpit.
“Well, did you straighten her out?”
“I am so embarrassed,” he said. “And a little ashamed.”
“Why? What happened, Rolf?”
“Her shots are for diabetes, even all her pills. I should have known.”
“Because I assumed she was hiding things from me.”
“Oh, well, that happens. Ya know, I learned an old saying when I was about your age. ‘Smart people get their exercise at the gym; not so smart people get their exercise by jumping to conclusions.’”
“I was not so smart, Henry.”
“Did you apologize?”
“Then you move on from here. You accept her – even if she has diabetes. Love is just love, after all; love isn’t magic, but it is real or it is nothing at all.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you can’t be just a little in love, or even too much in love. Love is just love. You either feel that way or you don’t. There’s nothing else like it, maybe not even anywhere else in the universe.”
“I think,” Rolf added, “it might be the scariest thing in the universe.”
“Love can be very powerful, but I’ve found that hate and anger can be as powerful, too. And all three seem to be related, somehow.”
“Well, love can turn to hate or anger in a heartbeat, and once it does something very strange and powerful happens. People lose the ability to think rationally.”
“Maybe it is better to never fall in love, Henry.”
“Maybe so, but then you’d miss out on one of the big things that makes us human.”
“Do you think only humans can love?”
“No, I didn’t say that. Remember those Orcas? I think they love one another, and dolphins do too. Lots of birds mate for life – so why can’t we call that love? What makes us different, Rolf, is that we write poetry and music about love, we build monuments to love, and we have created elaborate ceremonies all around the very idea of love, so obviously we think love is a very big deal. It’s a feeling, true, but it is so much more than that. When you get right down to it, we’ve organized our societies around a stable precondition of love…”
“Maybe that’s why we’re getting so fucked up, Henry.”
He smiled. “You know, maybe you’re right. What would you organize a new society around?”
“Money, I think.”
“Okay. So…what happens to poor people in that society?”
“No, no, there would be no poor people. Everyone would make the same, no matter what they did.”
“I think that’s been tried before.”
“The Soviet Union, for one, but pretty soon little breakdowns began to occur. Like everyone was equal, right? – but even so pretty soon some people were more equal than others. These people starting making new rules to benefit people just like them, and pretty soon you were right back to square one and the Soviet Union fell apart. So…love might actually be a pretty good organizing principle…if we can ever figure out how to really make it work for everyone, that is.”
“I think I will have a hard enough time making it work for just me, Henry.”
Taggart nodded. “Truer words were never spoken, Rolf. Love is a mystery, and one with no easy solution, no real answer. My God but that smells good. What is she making down there?”
Rolf grinned, but he shrugged at the same time.
“Ah, yes…love loves a good secret,” Henry said, smirking.
“Well, one thing is certain…she loves you, I think…but…”
“But what, Rolf?”
“I think she is not the only one,” the boy said, perhaps a little defiantly.
“What’s on your mind, son.”
“I think there are two other women who love you…did you call me son?”
“I did, yes.”
“I don’t know, but I think I like that.”
“Okay. Now, what about your mother?”
“And that girl Eva; my mother thinks she loves you most of all.”
“Most of all? Rolf, remember something important. There is no most of all, there is only love.”
“But cannot some people hurt more than others? If this is so, aren’t you saying that all pain is alike, or that none is worse than another?”
“I don’t know, Rolf. I really don’t know the answer to that one.”
“I talked to my mother last night. She wants to spend time with you. But my mother says that Eva appears lost without you. She says Eva must come soon, and she asks that you consider this.”
“Have you told your grandmother any of this, Rolf?”
“No, I haven’t, but I asked her to call my mother.”
“Just before I came up now.”
“What shall we do?”
“We? Rolf, this is my problem, not yours…”
“No, not so. You have already told me that these will be my brothers or sisters, and that I will be the one taking care of them one day, so is this not my problem too, Henry?”
“I’m not sure I’d be in such a hurry if I were you, Rolf, but that was spoken like a man, not a boy.”
“But I can help. At least I can if you will let me.”
“You know, I really wish you were my son.”
“Henry, you are the only father I have now. Please remember that.”
Taggart sighed, nodded in understanding. “Okay. But I know at least one thing now, Rolf.”
“What is that?”
“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”
They tied up just north of Agnesberg and had lunch in the cockpit, a fantastic spread of salads and soups and freshly baked bread, and though Dina tried her best not to appear confused Henry could tell that she was. But not angry, he told himself, and that was a good thing, right?
Rolf, on the other hand, seemed nervous, constantly looking between Astrid and his grandmother, then looking to Henry for reassurance – like ‘our little world isn’t about to come crashing down on our heads, is it?’
Yet try as he might, Taggart just couldn’t get the food down. It was delicious, it smelled like heaven, but after getting a bite or two down he completely lost his appetite, and within a few minutes Dina was focused on Henry – like she was gauging his reaction to the food as if she alone knew what was happening.
And perhaps that was because she alone knew what was happening. Worse still, she alone knew what lay just ahead.
She went below and poured him a nutritional shake, then she prepared an injection. She went up and asked him to roll up his sleeve, and when that was done she had him sip on the shake while they ate. A half hour later Henry ate a slice of bread, then he finished his soup and announced that the world was still a very splendid place indeed! There was a main railway line just along the right side of the river here, and passenger trains whooshed by every ten minutes…but other than that the river seemed peaceful enough…
“You know, we could almost tie up here – but I think the trains would keep us up all night.”
“We’ll find something up ahead,” Dina said, glad the medication had kicked-in so efficiently. “Besides, it is too early to quit for the day.”
“Okay. Rolf, let me get the engine going then you can cast off the lines.”
And a minute later they were underway. They slowed when they met a small freighter coming downriver, and everyone whooped when Time Bandit bounced on the passing ship’s large wake, then they came to a small marina near the village of Nödinge and tied up for the night. But as soon as Bandit was secure, Taggart went down to his bunk and fell into a deep sleep.
Rolf, Astrid, and Dina sat in the cockpit and snacked, though Dina seemed intent on not talking about her conversation with Britt earlier in the day. Astrid carried dishes down to the galley, leaving Rolf to find out what had happened.
“I will talk to Henry when he awakens. This is very complicated, Rolf. More so than anything I might have imagined.”
“This Eva…she sounds…”
“Like a lunatic! I’m having a hard time believing the girl could put on such a show!”
“What did she do, Grandma-ma?”
“Rolf? It is time you stopped calling me that. You are too old for such things, and it is making me feel older than I already am.”
She smiled. “I am sorry. I should not have said that.”
“What did this Eva do?”
Dina turned away, looked at the river. “She is acting like a child, Rolf. Terrible, really, but it is better not to talk about such things now, as she might be joining us soon.”
“Alright. What about mother?”
“She has the morning sickness now. It is better that she not travel for the time being. Then…we shall see.”
“How do you feel about all this, Grandma-ma.”
“Oh, a little sad. Sad for Henry most of all, but sad for these girls, and for all these new children.”
“Henry has talked to me about that. He says it might fall to me one day to take care of these children.”
“True. It may. What do you think of that?”
“It is strange to think about such things. Being a brother is one thing, but to take on the role of parent is quite another. I can hope to be good at both…”
“Be a good brother, Rolf. Doing that will take care of all the rest.”
“It is a good thing you are not pregnant, isn’t it?”
“Why do you say that?” she said, a little too defensively.
“Three children? What would Henry think about that?”
“I don’t know,” she sighed.
“Can you still have children, Grandma-ma?”
“I thought not, but…”
“Oh my God, no. You too?”
She nodded. “Yes. Me too.”
“Oh, no. Three babies…all at once.”
“It is not three, Rolf. Your mother has twins, Eva too.”
“That is four. Then, heaven forbid, perhaps I will have two as well.”
“Yes, fuck indeed. Please, tell me that Astrid is on birth control?”
“Oh dear God. We will need an entire maternity ward before this winter is over.”
“Six brothers and sisters,” Rolf said, his eyes lost in contemplation. “It boggles the mind.”
“I wonder,” Dina sighed, “if he would object to a vasectomy while he is asleep.”
“Never mind. I was saying silly things.”
“Six, Grandma-ma. Six! Think of that!”
“And he will not live to see even one of them born. Think about that, Rolf. Not one of them.”
“I think he would find that almost funny, Grandma-ma.”
She smiled. “Yes, perhaps that is true, yet I think he will be happy, even so. I hope so.”
“I hope so, too. Do you know, he called me ‘son’ today.”
“Does that surprise you?”
“I think it did, yes.”
“When he looks at you I see pride in his eyes, Rolf. Sometimes we come to our place in life from very different stations. His road to you, perhaps, was like this. When he first arrived in Bergen, what if he had walked in another direction? Away from your mother’s clinic. What then? We, you and I and your mother might not have ever seen him. We wouldn’t be here right now. All because he went to the left instead of the right.”
“So, it was all a happy accident?”
“Ah…that is a very big question, Rolf. A happy accident? Or…the road he chose was destiny, part of a plan.”
“You mean God, religion, all that?”
She nodded her head.
“What do you believe, Grandma-ma?”
“Me? Well, if there is a God, Rolf, I think He believes very much in happy accidents. The world and our lives can unfold in many different ways, ways no one can foretell, perhaps not even God.”
“But don’t people believe God has a plan…?”
“And what would be the fun in that, Rolf. Perhaps even God enjoys watching the decisions we make, or perhaps He despairs when He sees us making regrettable decisions.”
“Or perhaps there is no God?”
“Perhaps. But it is unimportant what I think, or Henry thinks. What is important is what you think. The choice is yours.”
“What about medicine? Can medicine coexist with God?”
“Why not? I doubt God would mind one way or another. What might matter to God is that we are true to ourselves, and to our own beliefs. As a physician I believe in a set of paradigms, but it would presumptuous for me to say that the structure of medicine, or of science, precludes a belief in God. Again, it is more likely that God watches how we treat one another, that we love and respect each other, that we cherish life in all forms, even the earth.”
“Is it wrong for me to feel love for Henry?”
“No. How could that be?”
“Well, because he is not my real father.”
“Your father is no longer here, so you do not forsake the memory of him by embracing the present. Henry is an important part of your life now, and I suspect he always will be. Love, respect, even duty…those are the things you embrace now.”
“Rolf…think of it this way. If your father could in some way be looking down on you right now, do you think he would be disappointed?”
“I wish that was possible, Grandma-ma.”
“Yes…but perhaps it is possible, Rolf.”
He nodded, then turned to face the heavens. “I think it is getting cool out now. Could I make you some coffee, Grandma-ma?”
“Yes, please. I am going to check on Henry, then I will see you here. And please, might not Astrid join is?”
He woke up early the next morning and made coffee, then he went up to the cockpit with his iPad and started planning their day. He woke up the chartplotter and looked at potential stops along the way, then he thought about the conversation he’d had with Dina sometime in the night. About Britt and Eva needing time with him, about the twins…and then the real news…that she too was pregnant.
“How is that even possible?” he remembered asking.
“I thought these things were over, but apparently they were not. Anyway, that doesn’t matter now. I am and that is that.”
He had kissed her, asked her how she felt, but she had answered with oblique references to her age, and of trying to be a good mother again, but all in all what he witnessed was a very profound insecurity taking flight.
How could he help her manage that, he wondered?
Eliminate known sources of insecurity. Let her focus on the child or, heaven forbid, the children. Yet the first thing he knew he had to do was open up all lines of communication. He was beginning to feel that she was already sheltering him, keeping things that might upset him out of sight, and so out of mind. She was, in other words, protecting him – and he loved her that much more for it – yet he also knew he had to have her understanding. He had to be kept in the loop if he was going to be effective at helping everyone navigate the rough waters ahead.
He nursed his coffee for a while, lost in thoughts about the future when out of the blue he thought about Doris Day. Growing up with her in the house next door had always been kind of surreal – going to see Pillow Talk at the movie theatre then coming home and seeing her on the porch overlooking Newport harbor, every now and then waving at her and seeing her smile… Coming in from a long trip on Bandit with his father and her calling out “How’d y’all do?” in that magic voice of hers. Her smile…oh! the memory!
Clyde came up the steps and barked twice, indicating his need was getting extreme, and Henry grabbed the leash and took him ashore. Clyde took his time finding just the right bush to hose down, then circled twice and dropped a dump truck load on an ant hill. Taggart groaned. “Damn, boy, they’re getting stinkier!” That was worth a wag or two of the tail, then they made their way back to the Bandit. Taggart settled behind the wheel, so Clyde sat next to him and waited for his head rub, which was none too soon in coming.
Then he heard Dina down in the shower so he finished his coffee – and without warning he vomited – and he saw streaks of blood in clear fluid that almost looked like mucous…
Dina heard the noise and was on deck before he finished cleaning up the mess.
He told her what had happened, then…
“What did it look like?”
“Blood streaks, thick clear mucous looking stuff, no food in it.”
She shook her head. “If you can’t get more food down this will get worse. Understood? You have to eat more!”
“But I’m not hungry, Dina?”
“It does not matter. Three times a day, even a little. You have to keep your body nourished or it will not be able to fight. Clear?” She sighed. “Next town we come to we will need to get a blood count. Did you drink coffee, too?”
“No, Henry. Not without food. You’d do better with herbal teas, too. Now, let me get you a scone, then I’m going to fix you some eggs. Will you eat some ham or bacon?”
“You’re the doctor. You put it down in front of me and I’ll eat it. Promise, okay?
He ate her breakfast and a half hour later it came back up; he bent over the rail and let go right into the river.
“Henry, next time that happens I need to examine the contents for blood, okay? This is important, alright?”
He nodded. “What about that shake you gave me yesterday? I held that down okay.”
“You should not be vomiting so soon…”
“Let me try the shake again, and I have some antacid tabs in the medicine cabinet above our sink.”
She disappeared down the companionway and he disconnected the shore power cord, then started the diesel. He pulled in their dock lines and backed out of the slip, then turned into the river – still heading generally north. Dina came up and handed him the canned shake and he tossed it down, then shivered just a little.
“That is a taste I don’t think I will ever get used to,” he grimaced.
“Do you like salmon?”
“Yup, in all its forms, but not in a milkshake.”
She grinned. “What about sushi?”
She nodded. “Do we have to transit a lock today?”
“Yeah, assuming we make it there in time; it’s only about 20 miles.”
She sighed: “I wish you would speak in kilometers…”
“Yeah, okay, call it 32 clicks. What do you think about maybe getting a bigger boat?”
“What? Are you serious?”
“Yeah. The way things are shaping up, if you guys had a boat big enough to handle all of you, well, it might help to, you know, bring all of you together on a regular basis.”
“I’m not sure I can talk about the future right now, Henry. Not that future, anyway.”
“Sorry, and yeah, I understand. Probably better if I just handle things while I can.”
She turned and looked at the passing landscape – pastures off to the right, some rugged low hills to port, the rail line still there, trains whizzing by now and then. “Are you thinking about such things often?”
“Yeah, more or less. I have ideas, some I pass them along to Sigrid.”
“Yup. When I’m, well, you know, just get in touch with her.”
“What about your holdings in the States?”
“Everything has been transferred into a trust. In Bergen. She’ll lay it all out for you.”
“What about the boat?”
“It’ll belong to the trust for the time being.”
“I like this boat. If you got something new that would mean getting rid of this one, no?”
“No, not at all. I can put the new boat into the trust and leave Time Bandit to you. Would you prefer that?” She nodded her head but looked away, he could tell she was crying and trying to hide it from him. “I suppose you’ll take care of her, right?”
“Of course. I may even take her on a long trip. Would that be okay?”
“Of course? Where would you go?”
“Wherever you tell me to go.”
“Ah, so you intend to keep talking to me even after, eh?”
“Of course. Every night before bed.”
“I feel like such a flake. Bugging out without changing even one diaper. Sheesh, the nerve of some people’s children…”
“I hope we have a bunch of boys – and that they have your humor.”
“Dearie me. You do have a pretty wide masochistic streak, don’t you?”
“A little, maybe yes.”
“Well, enough of this crap. Get out the guidebook and lets figure out the day…
Dina and Astrid whipped up a salmon bisque to go with fresh bread and Taggart enjoyed the soup, and when he kept it down Dina relaxed a little. ‘I just have to find things he can tolerate,’ she said to herself. ‘And fill him with nutrients when I can…’
They approached their first lock, right inside the village of Lilla Edet, and it was a big one; the guidebook said it was often full of commercial freighters and small passenger boats, as well as small pleasure craft. Today was, unfortunately, no exception. A big, red-hulled freighter had already pulled into the cavernous lock, and a white passenger boat came in right behind them…so their first attempt at trying a lock would be a trying affair. And one with an audience.
“Let’s get Clyde down below,” Henry said as they approached the entry. “Rolf, you stand by with the bow line; I’ll handle the stern from here,” he added as he maneuvered Time Bandit into a space indicated by the lock-keeper. The red bricked wall looked to be about thirty feet tall, and bronze bollards were recessed in the wall at regular intervals; the trick would be to secure the Bandit to one bollard, and, as it started to rise, to get another line rigged on the next bollard – that was now too high to reach.
The white passenger ship came up behind them and then the lock’s gate closed behind them. When it was secure water began filling the lock chamber, and the water rushed in with incredible velocity, creating a turbulent wash that made holding onto the lines a real chore. The commercial ships had heavy lines and specialized equipment to handle the load, while Time Bandit had Rolf and Henry…
“Okay Rolf, get your line on the next bollard!” he called out when they’d risen about eight feet, and then he scrambled to get his line secure on his next bollard. But…in the end it proved an easier than expected transit, and when the gate opened they motored out of the lock behind the red freighter, then the little cruise ship motored out. Then, all three of boats motored along in a spontaneous parade, with the passengers on the liner behind standing on the bow taking pictures of Taggart & Company.
The landscape was more rugged now, hills flanked both sides of the river here, and the river itself bent more frequently to accommodate the hilly terrain. And with each new bend little villages popped up unexpectedly, each sporting at least one church steeple, many with bakeries and markets near the water, so stopping was always a temptation – and a handy option if supplies ran low.
“This is so different from an ocean passage,” Henry said…to no one in particular. “All we need is a chocolate factory…”
“And a golden ticket!” Astrid added – making Rolf smile.
Clyde chose that moment to jump into Taggart’s lap, and sitting there with his front paws draped over Taggart’s shoulders, and with his snout resting beside Taggart’s neck he promptly fell asleep – and started snoring. Taggart wrapped his arms around the pup and scratched his back, and he soon felt a moan of contentment come from deep inside. Of course, Rolf took another picture with his iPhone…
After a brief snooze Clyde jumped down and went off in search of a water bowl, and Henry turned the wheel over to Rolf. He walked forward and pulled out his own phone, then he called Hallberg-Rassy, a boat builder on the Swedish coast just north of Gothenburg. He explained what he needed and his time constraints; they advised they usually built on a semi-custom basis but had had a recent order cancellation just before delivery was to be made. It was a new 57 footer, and the rep went over the details; Taggart was intrigued enough to want to see it.
“We’re on the Trollhätten Canal, actually approaching the town of Trollhätten,” he advised.
“Ah, that is very close to here. We could send a car for you in the morning, if you like. Would that work out for you?”
“Yes, I think so. I’ll let you know where we moor for the night.”
The rep made a few recommendations for places to tie-up overnight and then rang off.
“Who did you call,” Dina asked, standing behind him at the mast.
“Feel like looking at a boat tomorrow?”
“You are serious, aren’t you?”
“Yes, of course.”
She shrugged. “Okay. Is it far from here?”
“No, I don’t think so. Maybe an hour away.”
She sighed. “Are you always so – decisive?”
“Well, circumstances have changed, haven’t they? I want to get it right, and I don’t want to waste time, so I have to move fast. How far are we from Trollhätten?”
“About seven miles…”
“Miles! You used miles, and after telling me to…”
“I know, I know,” she grinned, “but that silly machine only gives a readout in miles.”
“Nautical miles, Dina. The same unit of measurement on all my nautical charts. Look, just multiple miles by 1.6 and you have clicks…”
“Clicks? what is it with this clicks-thing!”
“Just a bad habit I picked up when I was an American…”
“Bosh! You are an American through and through…”
“Look! A Burger King!” he shouted, pointing at a little castle on a hilltop. “Let’s go!”
She shook her head as she muttered her way back to the cockpit.
“And the crowd goes wild, Ladies and Germs! Team Taggart scores again!”
The Hallberg-Rassy yard was immaculate, and the 57 was tied up just below their main offices. Taggart looked at her as he walked up, admiring not only her lines but the apparent simplicity of the rig. The cockpit was amazing, with literally everything electrically coupled to the helm. You could, the rep explained, adjust everything from the wheels: furl the sails, adjust the sheets, raise or lower the anchor, or operate the thrusters…
“Did you say thrusters, as in more than one?”
“Yes, bow and stern.”
“Hell, even I could pass the parallel parking test with this rig.”
Dina had already gone below and she was calling for him now – almost urgently.
“What’s wrong?” he asked after he’d made his way down the companionway steps.
“There’s a dishwasher in the galley!” she cried.
“And a washing machine in the owner’s head,” the rep advised.
“On a sailboat?” she said, wide-eyed, then she turned to Henry. “Have you ever!?”
“I think she likes this boat,” the rep said, smiling now.
He showed them around for two hours, going over literally every system onboard at least twice. Then: “Shall we go for a sail?”
“No thanks,” Taggart said, and the rep looked crestfallen, so did Dina. “I think I’ve already made up my mind.”
“Oh?” the rep and Dina said in unison.
“Let me get you my attorney’s number. You can call her in an hour to arrange for transfer of funds and registration information. We’ll swing by here in about three weeks to pick up the 57. At that time I’d like to drop off my current boat and leave her in dry storage here in your yard. We’ll arrange for pickup next Spring. During that time could you winterize the boat’s systems and perform whatever maintenance you think necessary?”
“Of course,” the rep said. “Shall we paint a new ship’s name and port on the stern?”
“Yes, please. Time Bandits, plural, out of Bergen, Norway.”
“I’ll see to it personally, sir.”
They made it back to Time Bandit in time for a late lunch, then they transited the Trollhätten locks – as in more than one. These were once again huge commercial affairs, sized to accommodate smaller ocean going freighters and, once again, they transited with large ships. After the second lock they motored through the city center, waiting for two bridges to be raised, before they stopped for the day at a purpose built lagoon off the Spiköstigen. It was early enough that Dina wanted to get Henry to the local hospital’s lab for a round of bloodwork, so a taxi was called and off they went.
“Nice having my own personal doc, ya know?”
“Don’t let it go to your head,” she said as she filled out the paperwork the oncologist in Gothenburg had provided. “Now go! The vampires await!”
“Did I mention I hate needles?”
“Only ten times on the taxi ride here.”
“Oh. Well…I hate needles.”
He went to lab then ambled back to her ten minutes later. “They got it on the first try this time.”
“Lucky you. They will call me with the results this evening, so let’s go.”
“Yeah, hospitals give you the willies, huh?”
“The willies. You know, like a shiver that runs up your spine when you watch a horror flick?”
“You watch horror films?”
“You confuse me too much, Henry Taggart.”
“How would you like a nice proctologist’s exam?”
“I don’t know. Hum a few bars and maybe I’ll recognize it.”
“You are going to drive me mad!”
“And the crowd goes wild!”
And so it went. A seemingly endless idyll motoring across Sweden by river – interspersed with two long days sailing across lakes Vänern and Vättern, two huge lakes in Sweden’s interior. More villages, bakeries and ice cream shops, summer crowds – with many gathered along the edges of the various locks watching the action.
Astrid began to emotionally separate from Rolf the closer Bandit got to Stockholm, intuitively knowing their journey of the heart was coming to an end. Rolf did his best to show a stiff upper lip, but he too began to withdraw. Sensing that something was wrong, Clyde stayed with them the night before she was scheduled to fly back to Oslo. Taggart sent the two of them by taxi to the airport, and when Rolf returned a few hours later he clambered back onboard and disappeared into his cabin. Taggart decided to let him be. Clyde did not; he went forward and stayed with Rolf…
He spent a day at yet another hospital and yet another oncologist ‘gave him the bad news’ – and Taggart began to suspect that some physicians actually got into the role of telling some people they were going to die, rather like medieval priests relished their role as gatekeepers to the afterlife. Maybe it was a power dynamic, he thought, though he dared not bring up the subject with Dina.
After transiting almost sixty locks many of Bandits lines and fenders were worn out, so Taggart took Rolf shopping at a marine supply store; afterwards, they spent the rest of the day organizing the new goodies while discarding the old. Bandit spent another day getting her engine serviced, and the three of them played the tourist game and wandered around Stockholm for a day. After that, all that remained was a daunting 400 mile run down the Baltic Sea to Copenhagen, then a sedate passage through the Kattegat – passing Gothenburg on the way to Ellös, where the new boat waited. Of course, a stop in Copenhagen was mandatory – at least according to Dina it was – because ‘the best oncologists in the world’ could be found there.
Stockholm was, Taggart soon discovered, called the Venice of the North for a reason. Almost every neighborhood in the city was located on an island, and there were marinas everywhere. And…people everywhere, too…
“Everyone in this city must own a goddam boat!” he growled as they waited for yet another bridge to open. “It’s like Los Angeles at rush hour…only on the water!” It took a day and half just to wind there way through the maze to the open sea, but by then he’d decided the rocky coast was the most enticing sailing grounds he’d ever seen. “You could sail here and never see the same island twice!” The charts for the area were a condensed blur of astonishing detail, as even what appeared to be large rocks had anchorages listed.
Still, while open water beckoned they ran into the same intemperate weather they had experienced in Gothenburg: a huge high pressure system had parked itself over Northern Europe and the region was baking under temperatures reaching the high 90sF. Sailors had to deal with winds most charitably called ‘light and variable’ – which meant breezes so light and capricious that sailing became pointless. Which meant the engine was doomed to power most of Bandit’s trip to Copenhagen. The air conditioner would work overtime too, and when they’d first gotten underway in Stockholm, Dina had ordained that no one spend more than an hour at the wheel while temps remained so extreme.
Taggart detested running the engine – Bandit was a sailboat, after all – but making two knots over the bottom was simply not feasible now. He found that now he was constantly modifying his itinerary to squeeze in new routes that would take them by ‘something they just had to see’ – at least according to this or that guidebook, or according to fellow sailors they met at locks or when berthed at marinas. But August was looming now, which left two – or possibly three months to get to Paris, given his oncologists prevailing timeline, anyway.
But, he reasoned, the bad weather couldn’t last all summer, could it? Whatever, the new boat would be fast, potentially much faster than Time Bandit. With those factors working in his favor, the plan was to pick up Time Bandits and leave Ellös – only heading back towards Copenhagen. Then they’d cut south, making for the eastern entrance to the Kiel Canal, a shortcut that could save a potentially punishing first crossing of the North Sea in an untested boat. The plan from there was, so far at least, unchanged. Duck into the Dutch canal system and head south to Belgium and France. Somewhere along the French coast he’d unship the mast and proceed down the Seine to Paris, then put his feet up and bask in the glow of a handful of memories until…yeah, well…until Shit Happened.
So…leaving the Stockholm Archipelago in their wake, and as the Bandit found the open sea again, Taggart turned to the south and set the autopilot. With that out of the way, Clyde jumped into Henry’s lap and assumed the position, and the pup was soon snoring away. Dina was down in the galley preparing some sort of soup and Rolf was sitting on the bow, lost in wonder no doubt, pondering the meaning of existence without his one true love sitting there by his side…
…when he heard a thunderous roar…just after a concussive blast knocked him to the cockpit floor…
© 2020 adrian leverkühn | abw | this is a work of fiction, pure and simple; the next chapter will drop in a week or so.