The sun was shining and Dad was singing as he washed the breakfast dishes. Mum had rushed like a whirlwind earlier, as if it was a normal school day, telling us all to get up, so breakfast could eaten together, before she went to work. It was calmer now she’d gone and the summer school holiday spread out before us as if six weeks was a lifetime.
‘What are we going to do today, Dad?’ asked my sister Lesley. She’s two and a half years older than me but we don’t fight like some girls do.
‘What would you like to do?’ he said.
‘Picnic, picnic, I’d like a picnic. Can we?’ I yelled.
‘Hmm. What about getting a rowing boat out and having a picnic on the river?’ We jumped up and down with excitement. This was a real treat.
‘You girls go and play in the garden for half an hour while I make the picnic and then we’ll go.’ We didn’t need telling twice and ran outside with our skipping ropes. Lesley could do bumps, sweeping the rope under her feet twice with just one jump. I kept trying but couldn’t jump high enough or turn the rope quick enough and always ended in a tangle.
When Dad was ready, carrying a rucksack, we walked to our garage, the middle of a set of five. We waited while he backed out and then got in, both of us grinning with excitement. The journey would take about twenty minutes but however long the trip we always sang in the car. My favourite was the song of Old Mother Lee with verses going on forever telling the story of a murder and ending with,
‘They hung her from the nearest tree,
The nearest tree. The nearest tree
They hung her from the nearest tree
Down by the sea
Down by the sea, where the …….. ‘ All sung very loudly and with great enthusiasm.
The rowing boats were varnished wood with a black, wrought iron back to one of the seats. There was a seat at the back for steering, a long seat in front of that (the one with the back rest), then a seat for the rower with a board that slotted into different places to rest his feet, and finally a tiny seat at the prow. The man who hired the boats held it still while we got in, Dad taking the oars and Lesley and I sitting side by side in front of him. We were pushed off, Dad leaned forward, dipped the ends of the oars into the dark, green water and we felt the boat move forwards as he pulled. He got into a rhythm, humming quietly and we watched the bank passing by, thick with bushes and trees. There were some holes in the bank, just above the water line.
‘Keep an eye out for Ratty,’ said Dad, who loved, ‘The Wind in the Willows’. We didn’t spot a water rat but there were plenty of ducks with almost grown up ducklings and a swan glided past followed by a brown-feathered baby. Sometimes the trees hung so low over the water they threatened to knock us off our seat.
‘Watch out Dad,’ laughed Lesley, ‘We nearly got beheaded.’
‘Well it might help if one of you steered. Hop to the back Les and remember if you pull on the left rope the boat will go right and vice versa. I’ll get into the middle and you can practise.’ Dad pulled harder on the left oar and we headed towards the centre. ‘Hazel, keep an eye out for any other boats. We don’t want a collision.’ I took my job seriously but in my heart I wanted to steer or even row. My hand trailed in the cool water, trying to avoid being brushed by waterweed, which was soft but somehow spooky.
Lesley began to steer with confidence and Dad suddenly shouted, ‘Look a creek; lets go and explore, hard left Les.’ She pulled her rope and He steered to help using one oar and we entered the heavily overgrown creek. ‘I’d better ship my oars; it’s getting narrow.’ He pulled the oars in, so they lay dripping in the boat and we drifted on, slowly coming to a halt as we grounded. ‘It’s too shallow to go any further but what a lovely place for a picnic.’
It was a lovely place, almost a secret hideaway. No one could see us and all we could hear was the occasional bird song and the hum of insects. Lesley came and sat with me as Dad produced sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. We ate happily and chatted. I asked if I could have a go at steering or rowing on the way back.
‘I’d already planned to let you have an oar each because it will be easier flowing with the currant.’
‘Hooray,’ I half shouted, not wanting to reveal our whereabouts. ‘Is there anything else to eat?’ I loved food and hoped Dad had some cake or bread pudding (his speciality). But I was not expecting what he produced next, three plastic bowls, spoons, a tin of fruit salad and a tin of evaporated milk.
‘Did you bring a tin opener?’ asked Lesley. He answered by rummaging in the rucksack, frowned, went through all the side pockets, finally back to the main section and produced it with an exaggerated sigh of relief. We all laughed, knowing the show of anxiety was all pretence. The tins were opened and their contents shared between us and the silence was only broken by slurps and gulps. It was delicious.
When the picnic was over and everything stowed in the rucksack, Dad took an oar and shoved hard against the bank to push us back. Nothing happened. We were stuck. He tried again, even stood up punting but the mud held us fast. ‘We’re too heavy. I’d better get onto the bank and push, then jump in quick.’ This was not easy because the bank was almost invisible, overgrown with bushes and trees. We all looked for a suitable clearing and I spotted one just beyond the prow. ‘Could you get out there Dad?’
‘Oh, well spotted. That’s perfect.’ He jumped off causing everything to rock violently, and then his sandaled foot slid slowly into the water. Dad scrabbled for purchase with a grunt, steadied himself and then bent to the task of pushing the boat. The first shove moved us a little and the second one slid us backwards. Dad leapt and landed in a heap, but with us, to my relief. He moved to the rowing seat grinning, collected the oars and said,
‘There’s nothing—absolutely nothing—half as much worth doing as messing about in boats.’