“You can do it,” said Ned. “You’ve heard Albert countless times. I could probably recite what he says in my sleep.”
“Well you do it then,” said Mike.
“I’ve got to drive the boat. It’s time we were off. At least we’ve got more on board than yesterday.”
Great, thought Mike. Albert couldn’t have picked a worse time to break his wrist, silly old fool.
When Mike had taken on the summer job crewing on his cousin’s river cruise he’d never imagined that within a month he’d be expected to give the guided tour. As Ned revved up the engine Mike searched the furthest reaches of his memory for details of all the points of interest on their route. He stowed the gangplank and made sure the gate was secure, then counted the passengers and made a note of the number, as he did on each trip. Then he switched on the microphone and tapped it to make sure it was working.
“Er, good afternoon ladies and gentlemen … boys and girls. Welcome on board, and, er, I hope you enjoy our outing this afternoon. We’ll be stopping around three o’clock at the island, where there’s a café which sells refreshments. We’re lucky with the weather today. Now, if you look to your left you’ll see the church of St Botolph, built in, um, around 1600. You may like to take a walk over there when we return as there are some lovely old paintings on the walls. And lots of old graves in the graveyard. Now, the River Wentall on which we are travelling gets its name from a Celtic word, wintle, a type of hook.”
Ned shot Mike a puzzled glance, but Mike ploughed ahead regardless. Did it really matter if he made some of it up?
“It’s commonly thought that the bends of the river resemble hooks ...” continued Mike.
Then he was momentarily lost for words as a toddler broke free from his mother and tried to jump over the side. Luckily the little boy’s father grabbed him just in time and fastened him into a set of reins. The kid screamed as though he was being brutally murdered, so it didn’t really matter that Mike’s commentary had temporarily dried up as nobody would have heard anything anyway. The boy’s cries abated when his mother gave him some sweets, and Mike took up his microphone once more.
“If you look up at the cliffs on the right you’ll see some holes. Peregrine falcons make their nests in there. This is a popular area for bird watching … I think that’s a peregrine falcon flying overhead now.”
Thirty-four heads swivelled to follow the progress of the bird. Whatever it was, they seemed happy. The Japanese couple snapped away eagerly.
Shortly after, they reached the island. Mike set out the gangplank and helped the passengers onto the jetty. “We’ll be leaving in half an hour,” he repeated, over and over, in the hope of a prompt departure.
The passengers made their way to the shop and toilets. The island was about a hundred yards long and twenty feet wide, in the middle of a broad section of the river. It was fringed with willow trees which offered a number of pleasant, shady places to sit.
“You’re doing OK, really,” said Ned, chucking Mike a can of soft drink.
“Thanks, mate,” said Mike with a grin. An American couple approached, and Ned popped below deck.
“I’m going to check the oil,” he said. “You can have the pleasure of chatting with our friends from the good old US of A.”
“Can you tell us anything about the ruins on that hill?” asked the man. He had a massive camera hanging round his neck.
Mike shielded his eyes from the sun and followed where he was pointing. Sure enough, half way up the hill was a pile of crumbling masonry. “Oh, those ruins,” said Mike. He’d no idea. For all he knew, it could have been a derelict farmhouse, but the stones were quite big and the remains looked too substantial to have been a barn or farmhouse. A devilish idea formed in Mike’s mind.
“They are believed to be the remains of a castle which belonged to Merlin the magician,” he said. “You know, King Arthur and the knights of the round table. That Merlin.”
“Oh, really?” said the woman, drawing closer.
“Yes. It is believed he was born round these parts. And after his stint at Camelot he came back here to relative obscurity.”
“How interesting,” said the American, snapping off several shots of the ruins.
Mike was glad when the pair trotted off to the shop. He just wanted to sit in the sun for a few minutes and drink his Fanta. At least on the return journey he wouldn’t be expected to give a commentary.
The half hour stop having elapsed, Mike made sure the gangplank was steady and started counting passengers as they came back on board. But there were three missing.
“I think it’s the young couple with the little boy,” Mike said to Ned. They waited ten more minutes, and just as Mike was about to go in search the little family appeared. They wandered back to the boat, seemingly oblivious to the fact that they were keeping everybody waiting.
“Rooney needed a nappy change,” said the woman by way of explanation. No apology was forthcoming.
Just after they got under way the American man made his way over to where Mike was sitting on the steps outside the wheelhouse.
“While we were at the cafe I mentioned to the proprietor that he’d probably do quite a brisk trade in souvenirs of Merlin, and he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about.”
“Ah, he’s not from round here, you see. He’s from London, hasn’t been here long,” said Mike hastily. But the man frowned his disbelief.
“What was all that about?” asked Ned when Mike joined him at the wheel.
He explained, and Ned shook his head despairingly. “I hope Albert’s fit for work tomorrow. You’re too much of a liability, you and your stupid hooks and Merlin the magician. Half the population of America will probably be descending upon us once Chuck and his wife get home with their photographs.”
“Then you‘ll have me to thank for the increase in passengers,” quipped Mike.
“Just shut up and get the gangplank ready,” growled Ned.
By Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015