Some time ago, I was invited onto a boat.
I have never been especially keen on boats. I don’t have a mouth for rum, my memory for shanties is weak, at best, and sea air makes me feel queasy. Plus, I’m not at the right point in my life to really appreciate the scenery. I’m closer to the panic-over-gas-bills age.
Once, I was on a speedboat with my ex and hated every swirling-stomach, broken-brained minute of it. Looking back, that should have been a clue.
When I was growing up the Rotarians used to take my mother out to the garden centre. She loved plants and lived for shopping. If only the house had been bigger, it would have been like the gardening department at B&Q.
My mother had been in a wheelchair for as long as I could remember. There are many different strains of MS; my mother’s was the steady decline type. No remission, no relapse.
The worst thing, without question, was that she was unremittingly optimistic; she always thought there would be a cure by next Wednesday. It’s quite painful to watch someone you love being let down week after week by her own hopefulness.
As for myself, I’m more of a naïve cynic. I don’t always expect people to be decent, but I’m quite shocked when they’re not.
By the time of the shopping trips, she’d become quadriplegic. My mother tried an experimental drug treatment in an attempt to remove the jazzman shakiness from her hands. The shakes disappeared, but so did her ability to move her arms. It may have been a natural progression in the disease. Certainly, she had no hard feelings about it.
My mother and I were very similar in a lot of ways. The things that used to wind me up about her, are things that now irritate me in my own behaviour.
Obviously. We all turn into our mothers.
Shopping with my mother was a special kind of purgatory. The Rotarians, kind and warm-hearted, would drive her to the garden centre, with no idea of what they were letting themselves in for. I rarely went with them, having spent my childhood shopping with my mother.
She loaded them up like magnanimous pack-mules. After three hours, which would have felt like five, in the shop section (all bird-feeders, sweaters and furniture), she would send the men back to their van to fill it with bird-feeders, sweaters and furniture.
Then, she would move on to the plant section. Because they were pushing her in the wheelchair, I think it probably hit them a little harder as they would steer her wherever she desired, their erstwhile happiness waning, marching to their own hardy-perennial doom.
Plants. My mother was so in love with plants. She had a greenhouse built. There was barely room to move.
One of my godmothers used to tell me that when my mother had parties, there were three things her friends could be certain of: there’d be a bottle of Gordon’s on the coffee table, all the furniture would have been moved around the room, and there would be yet more foliage than the last time they had visited.
So, when the Rotarians asked me if I would go on a boat with them for charity, I knew I must.
In aid of Help for Heroes and the Legion, I was to sail from x to y with a group of Rotary chaps, two injured servicemen and another volunteer. My job was to talk to the servicemen, make sure they were comfortable, and try to hold down the full English from breakfast time.
I got to the dock and had somehow presumed that we were just going to say hello, and then move on to our accommodation for the night; some B&B somewhere, I imagined.
No, no. We were sleeping on the boat. It was a small yacht, of some sort. Mostly sails, but engine available, cabins, kitchen, port and starboard. That’s the extent of my sail-based knowledge. I, as the only woman, was given the captain’s quarters. I woke around 4am to the sound of seagulls walking on the deck above my head.
The servicemen were a couple of Army lads, called Smudge and Bridgie. They both been hit by shrapnel in Afghanistan. I was probably around eight years older than them, and a soft-as-butter civilian. I don’t pretend I wasn’t. Both Smudge and Bridgie were fairly quiet on the boat. Without question, they knew more than I did about so many things. Including what ‘come about’ meant. All I know is those words were yelled at me while I was steering. I soon gave up steering, and went back to chatting to the Rotarians.
When we got to Weymouth, Smudge and Bridgie, who hadn’t really spoken to me very much, were suddenly at my side. There were a couple of photographs for the newspaper, and then we were going to walk into town and get some sandwiches.
I had assumed, which is always a mistake, that they’d kept to themselves on the boat because maybe they didn’t like me, perhaps they could tell from across the boat. Or that I’d managed to give offence somehow, which would explain their tacit nod of greeting, but nothing actually audible. As a soft-as-butter civilian, I have a tendency to make everything about me.
As soon as we got ashore, the servicemen were at my side, like my own personal bodyguards.
If only it had been so simple as their protecting me. They had Army slogans on their shirts. The old fellas wouldn’t have an issue with them, they weren’t the sort of chaps to read a t-shirt and drop their jaws. The Army lads had kept apart from me because they thought I would be repulsed by the phrase ‘Fire and Forget’.
And there we were, on a civilian street, in England, and they were nervous of what reaction they would get from people in Tesco.
They were the nicest fellas I’d met in a long time.
We kept each other safe. I’m from Croydon.