(Fiction by Mike Phillips. Published in "The Boater" December 1997)
Ralph Scrape was probably one of the meanest men in the world. He was also one of the finest boatbuilders, and the surviving half of the partnership of "Scrape and Rivett - Builders of Fine River Craft".
In the early years of the twentieth century, boating was hugely popular, and the yard was booming with orders for punts, canoes, rowing skiffs for colleges and clubs and fine steam and electric launches for the rich. However, Scrape ran the yard with an iron hand. His eight young apprentices shivered with terror whenever his grim visage hove into view. His yard foreman, George Buckle, had survived many years by a combination of grovelling and expertise. The remaining six master boatbuilders were, in attitude, somewhere between these two extremes.
Yet another Christmas had appeared over the horizon, and was now upon them. "Er, Mister Scrape…" said George Buckle, cap in hand. "The lads were wonderin’ what was ‘appening regarding the Christmas, like a little bit o’ time orf, since we’ve ‘ad such a good year ‘an all…"
Scrape’s beetling brows drew together in an expression darker than the worst stormcloud. He drew himself up to his full scrawny 5ft 9inches. "Christ-mas" he said, pronouncing it as two separate words and continuing with great emphasis "Is the religious celebration of the Birth of Our Lord. It is celebrated in His Church with prayer and thanksgiving" ("And charity…" thought Buckle to himself) "It is not an excuse for frivolity, idleness, and excesses of food and alcohol. Or any other form of debauchery". He sniffed mightily. "This yard shall be closed for Christmas Day to enable all employees to attend Church. Otherwise the work schedule is as always, and I’ll thank you, Mr Buckle, to ensure that the lost time is made up by increased industriousness in the sheds." He stalked into his office and closed the door loudly. A great hush descended over the stealthily assembled yard workers. Then one by one they drifted disconsolately back to work.
That evening, after finishing his entries in the day ledger, and performing his customary ritual of checking (or rather, counting) the yard stocks of timber, fixings and chandlery to ensure nothing had been stolen, Scrape was walking along the snow-covered tow path to his small riverside cottage. It was bitterly cold and there was no-one in sight. As he drew level with Fuller’s Ferry, his left foot suddenly encountered a stretch of ice, and shot out from beneath him. His arms flailing, he fell backwards against a small tree, striking it on its riverward side. It bounced him outwards towards the edge, and with a feeling of horror, he felt himself tumbling over the side of the steep bank, through the thin ice and into the river.
With a splash, the freezing water swallowed him, and the sheer cold of it drove the breath from his body. The Ferry was at the outside of a bend here, and the water was deep. And Scrape had never learned to swim. His feet pedalled frantically, his arms flailed, and he swallowed what seemed like several gallons of the icy liquid, as he went down for the second time. A phrase was ringing in his ears: "A man who goes down for the third time never comes up…" and real panic set in. He fought his way to the surface somehow, and scrabbled like a demented dog at the steep bank. His heart pounded in his chest as he fought for his life.
Then all at once a lifeline appeared, out of nowhere, in the shape of a long white knitted scarf, dangling down towards him. Scrape lunged and grabbed it with all the desperation of a dying man. It held his weight, and he hung on it, his head out of the water. The cold water was draining his body of all vitality, and he knew he had only a short time to get out of the river, or perish. His gaze travelled up the scarf to its source, and he saw, illuminated by the moonlight, a girl seated in a wheelchair, her hands straining at the wheel-grips to prevent his weight pulling her over the edge on top of him.
What ensued next was a fantastic battle; - the girl straining with superhuman effort against his increasing weight, as he fought his way inch by inch up the slippery, near-vertical bank, hauling on the scarf, which she had tied to the front of her wheelchair. Many times she was dragged to the very lip of the bank, but somehow managed by some hidden strength to lever herself back to safety. How they succeeded he would never know, but succeed they did, and finally, after an age, Scrape gained the top of the bank, utterly spent, and collapsed in the grass and snow. He lapsed into unconsciousness.
He came round to the strange sensation of someone vigorously pumping the water from his lungs, as he lay face down. Scrape complained volubly, and at once he was turned over and sat up, to confront the friendly face of John Stevens, the local lock keeper. The girl in the wheelchair was nowhere in sight. "I thought you was a goner there, Mr Scrape" said John, with relief. Then he more or less carried the shivering yard-owner the short distance to the Scrape cottage, took him inside, wrapped him in blankets, and started a roaring fire with the totality of Scrape’s carefully hoarded firewood. Somewhat later, after jointly consuming a half bottle of brandy (also carefully hoarded) from Scrape’s cupboard, John told his tale.
"I was just makin’ ready for bed" said John "When there was a poundin’ on the front door. As I was in me night clothes, I opened the window and looked below. I couldn’t see a soul in the dark, but a girl’s voice calls out an’ says, like, "There’s a man near drowned on the bank by the ferry. ‘Elp, please, you must ‘elp!" She sounded real frantic, so I told ‘er I’d be right down. I jumped into me clothes an’ ran down, but when I opened the door there was no-one in sight. So I ran down the path, and there you was, just like she said". He frowned. "Oo was she? And what ‘appened to you?"
Scrape felt strangely reticent about describing the strange battle for his life the girl had waged. There was a silence. "I fell in" he said "Slipped on the ice. I was almost gone, when a young lady appeared and…pulled me out." he finished lamely.
Stevens was clearly puzzled. He knew the river and its seasons better than any man alive, and he was well aware of how hard it would be to pull a man out on that particular bend, with the ice and current. At length he shook his head and said "Well, Scrape, the Good Lord is watching over you this Christmastide, an’ that’s a fact. You tuck yourself in a warm bed, an’ I’ll bid you a very good night." He rose and let himself out quietly, leaving a very thoughtful Scrape by the fire.
Next day Scrape awoke to a bright dawn. The hoar frost glistened outside and a robin perched on the icebound window ledge. He felt none the worse for the night’s adventures, which was remarkable. In fact the world itself seemed somehow different. There was a newness and a fresh clarity to it, and he himself felt younger, lighter, and filled with a strange cheer. "Am I in the Afterlife?" he wondered to himself.
Then suddenly he laughed out loud, for it suddenly seemed a comical thought. He continued to laugh and chuckle merrily as he cooked and ate his breakfast oats. Which was very strange indeed, as Scrape had never been known to laugh at anything, ever…
Arriving at the yard at his customary 7.30 am, he greeted both craftsmen and apprentices cheerfully, failing to observe the utter astonishment this caused. In the workshops the apprentices conducted whispered exchanges; "Blimey, what’s with ‘ole Scrapey?", "E’s been on the tipple, that’s what!" and so on. Bert Stubbit, a gloomy old carpenter, had a different theory. "Only one thing would make the old wart smile like that" he said "And that’s giving us all our notice, just at Christmas time. You mark my words!" And so the morning went on. Scrape, meanwhile, was very busy elsewhere.
At noon he summoned the work force into the main boat shed and climbed onto the deck of a large steam launch. He smiled around him. Silence fell. "Tomorrow is Christmas Eve, and the yard shall be closed, and also on Christmas Day." he said, and added "And for these holidays, I will pay you your normal wage, and a Christmas bonus according to station." Jaws fell open, and his employees stared at him in round-eyed amazement. Scrape seemed not to notice, and went on "On Boxing Day you may if you wish observe the custom, and visit our customers with your boxes. Mr Buckle I’m sure can provide a list. In the meantime, it is my wish that you all join with me in proper celebration of the Festive Season!" All at once he reached across and pressed the large mechanical klaxon mounted on the launch, and it’s raucous shriek filled the air. Everyone jumped.
At the far end of the shed, the big doors opened and in strode Mr Gradgrind the village grocer, with two assistants, all laden down with baskets of Christmas fayre, followed by the vast bulk of Ben Boulter the landlord of the "Jolly Boatman", with a large cask under each arm. You could have heard a rivet drop, the amazement was so complete among Scrape’s workforce. Then at the back, a small spotty apprentice known as "Grub" suddenly piped "’Ooray for Mister Scrape! ‘Ip ip ooray!!" and pandemonium broke out. As if by magic, trestles and planks became a line of tables down the length of the shed, and the party began.
Later that afternoon, after imbibing a moderate amount of ale, Scrape suddenly felt he had to tell someone his strange tale, and, drawing Buckle into a corner by the river-ward windows, he poured it all out. When he was finished, and a little out of breath, he observed that Buckle’s face had grown very pale indeed. "What was ‘er appearance Sir, like, what was ‘er dressed in an all?" he asked. Scrape described the long brown coat and tartan wool blanket that the girl in the wheelchair had worn. He described her face, with its sunny disposition, and her neatly brushed hair, and of course the long white scarf. There was a long silence.
Buckle’s voice was husky and beads of perspiration had appeared on his forehead. "May the Good Lord have mercy on us." He crossed himself and went on "That was young Helen. Helen McDonald, only daughter o’ Doctor McDonald that lives in the big grey house upriver some two mile." He paused, and the rest came out as a whisper. "She drowned, Sir, ‘bout three years back. It were Christmas day. She went out in her chair along the towpath, an’ must ‘ave gone over the edge, right at the ferry. She were strapped in ‘er chair an’ never stood a chance…."
Scrape turned away, and seemed to be frozen for a long while. Then his voice came out quiet and low. "Merry Christmas to you, Helen" he said. "Merry Christmas, and may God bless you."
(Copyright ©1997 by Mike Phillips)
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