George came staggering into our lives when we were house-hunting in Westville. We had been living aboard a sailing catamaran for several months, but imminent winter made it clear that we’d be cold that year. Then our house in Milton Keynes was sold. So we had funds for a deposit and started looking for a small place. George’s house was on the shortlist, so we went to look.
George greeted us looking like a gory murderer. He was painting a wooden rowing dinghy in the living room. Once-grey carpet now featured artistic red streaks; once-beige walls now boasted an Impressionists’ art. George offered a handshake but the dripping crimson fingers were declined. He showed us the minimal rooms, one stoutly defended by his German Shepherd and inhabited by a non-verbal teenage son. We found out that George’s wife had left six months ago, but couldn’t imagine why. As we departed, George asked where we were living and we told him about the pleasant summer we had on our yacht in the local marina.
Our offer was accepted, George disappeared, we redecorated and moved in. It was a quiet little semi, with woods at the rear where squirrels happily played with their nuts. On the weekends we sailed, or partied with yottie friends. At some point we became aware that George was propping up the marina bar. Shortly after that, among the shiny plastic gin palaces we saw an old, well worn wooden sailboat. She was an elegant lady in her time, a 32’ sloop from Camper & Nicholson’s yard. As a dowager she was somewhat distressed. Patches of wood-rot were evident, paint was threadbare, and varnish lay about in yellow flakes. George’s uncommunicative son disappeared into the forepeak cabin among mouldy sail bags, while the very verbal dog set about guarding this floating hovel from the snotty yotties. George joined a coterie of barflies, and Westville’s grey winter set in.
This was the pattern of our lives for some time. George was persuaded to try sailing his yacht, things broke and fell off, George was rescued and the excitement faded away. We started a business at Westville Marina, offering a wide range of services to yotties and their craft, which mainly boiled down to scraping off old paint during winter rainstorms, then applying fresh paint and praying it would set before the next storm.
Until one day our employee Sten showed up early for work and received a strange comment from one of the yotties on his way for a morning shower: “Ere, Sten, old George be in a quair mood. Oi said marnin an e said nuffin, just stood ther gazin out to sea.” Sten, whose arms and legs lived four separate lives, made his way to George’s boat, looked up and then came bowling back. “George is a stiff,” he shouted. We told Sten to go steady, ‘it’s only natural at his age, and he’ll feel better when the sun comes through’. But Sten insisted George was dead, so we had a look.
George was very dead. During the night, he had wrapped the main halyard around his neck and then stepped off the cockpit seat. Several hours of dangling had stretched his corpse (and the halyard) so that he was indeed standing on the cockpit sole. Back at our shop we telephoned the police to report the demise. Their advice was “see that nobody touches anything until we get there”.
“Well shouldn’t we get him down , and sort of check he’s dead?”
“You said he was! Don’t you know what a stiff looks like?”
“Does he look like it?”
“Then he is. Anyway, it may be a Scene Of Crime, and must not be disturbed”
“Well the Scene is starting to disturb people”
“Keep those people back!”
So, having been deputised, we did. But then another problem presented. In the adjacent commercial harbour an ancient twin-masted vessel earned its keep by providing a romantic venue for burials-at-sea, and black-suited people were assembling for just such a ceremony. We thought they were probably a bit upset and that seeing another stiff might refresh their sadness. What could we do?
So we sent Sten off for a bed sheet from one of the client’s yachts. We draped it over artistically over George. Sten observed: “now he looks like a stiff in a shroud”.
Sten took one corner of the sheet, my husband took the other, and they held it up as a screen between George and the mourners as they sailed away to ditch their loved one. Later, their funeral director came to see us: “It was a nice send-off, but nobody could read your banner!”
Eventually, plod descended upon the Scene, with sirens blaring and lights like Christmas. A young lad came out from the marina office to tell them that the manager said they can’t park there. A majestic blue uniform with shiny bits on chest pronounced that they could and would, for they were on official business. Blue uniform marched off to see George, with blue minions in tow, leaving official vehicles on the slipway to face the incoming tide.
George’s yacht was made fast to a narrow pontoon finger by means of several mooring lines from cleats on the edge of her decks to similar cleats on the pontoon finger. The finger was kept in place by sturdy hinges joining it to the main pontoon, and kept afloat by a large block of Styrofoam strapped underneath. First to arrive at the Scene was the police photographer, armed with several Nikons. As he flashed, Blue Uniform stepped onto the finger, then the Coroner, then some blue minions. Plodweight was increasing, making the finger sink. The mooring lines dragged down on the side of the yacht, tilting her slightly. The tall mast tilted too, and George was still suspended by the halyard from the masthead, his feet just brushing the deck. Inevitably, like a fish from a rod, George stayed vertical but started moving across the deck. Like the fish going toward a landing net, George’s horizontal motion took him toward photographer. Snapper looked up, screamed, and step back; snapper and Nikons went swimming. Relieved of snapper’s weight, the finger rose, unsteadying several minions who joined snapper. The marina manager, joining us among the crowd of awestruck onlookers, remarked that the minions might now be able to retrieve some of their vehicles before they floated away completely.
George had brought more entertainment to Westville than had been seen for ages. It seemed only fitting to give him a good send-off. A coach was hired to take mourners on the four-hour trip to Big City. The barflies trooped aboard, then some marina bigwigs, and then those of us who could not find an excuse. Cases of refreshment were placed aboard, delighting the barflies.
At Big City we unloaded at the crematorium. Some of us who had been liberally refreshed during the trip found ourselves so overcome by grief that we were quite unsteady. My husband went off to the place where his parents’ ashes had been strewn among some rosebushes. One of the bigwigs saw his tears and remarked that nobody would have guessed that he was so close to George. And then we found the chapel. The cleric, perhaps also refreshed, launched into an amazing eulogy that astonished us and George’s family. There were obligatory dirges, and then we were invited to join in for one last song celebrating George’s great love of the sea. Thirty barflies belted out along with Rod Stewart “We are sailing, we are sailing” complete with arm-waving, vivid motions of the rolling sea, and even a case of mal-de-mer.
Not much happened in the weeks that followed as we considered our own mortality. A rickety wooden bench appeared, with a brass plate bearing George’s name. Several months later, one of our youngest employees was seen kneeling at the end of a pontoon. “Come on Dale” we called, “time for home”. “Help!!!” he cried, and his hands were tangled in a brown mass. When we got to him we saw that he had saved a woman by grabbing her hair, but could not haul her out. So we assisted. She was sobbing “I want to be with George.” Sten recognized the erstwhile wife, so my husband said sympathetically: “George ain’t here, he’s up Big City crematorium chimney, no thanks to you”
The wooden bench collapsed and was taken away. The wife collapsed and was taken away. George, as we saw, was taken away. Our business collapsed, we went away. The economy collapsed, now-penniless barflies went away. What was the point of it all, anyway?