One of our recommended books is The Narrowboat Summer by Anne Youngson

THE NARROWBOAT SUMMER


From the author of Meet Me at the Museum, a charming novel of second chances, about three women, one dog, and the narrowboat that brings them together.

Eve expected Sally to come festooned with suitcases and overnight bags packed with everything she owned, but she was wrong. She arrived on foot, with a rucksack and a carrier bag. “I just walked away,” she said, climbing on to the boat. Eve knew what she meant.

Meet Eve, who has left her thirty-year career to become a Free Spirit;

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From the author of Meet Me at the Museum, a charming novel of second chances, about three women, one dog, and the narrowboat that brings them together.

Eve expected Sally to come festooned with suitcases and overnight bags packed with everything she owned, but she was wrong. She arrived on foot, with a rucksack and a carrier bag. “I just walked away,” she said, climbing on to the boat. Eve knew what she meant.

Meet Eve, who has left her thirty-year career to become a Free Spirit; Sally, who has waved goodbye to her indifferent husband and two grown-up children; and Anastasia, a defiantly independent narrowboat-dweller, who is suddenly landlocked and vulnerable.

Before they quite know what they’ve done, Sally and Eve agree to drive Anastasia’s narrowboat on a journey through the canals of England, as she awaits a life-saving operation. As they glide gently – and not so gently – through the countryside, the eccentricities and challenges of narrowboat life draw them inexorably together, and a tender and unforgettable story unfolds. At summer’s end, all three women must decide whether to return to the lives they left behind, or forge a new path forward.

Candid, hilarious, and uplifting, Anne Youngson’s The Narrowboat Summer is a celebration of the power of friendship and new experiences to change one’s life, at any age.

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  • Flatiron Books
  • Hardcover
  • January 2021
  • 336 Pages
  • 9781250764614

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$26.99

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About Anne Youngson

Anne Youngson is the author of The Narrowboat SummerAnne Youngson is retired and lives in Oxfordshire. She has two children and three grandchildren to date. Her debut novel, Meet Me at the Museum, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award.

Praise

“Fans of Jane Smiley and Hannah Mary McKinnon will enjoy Youngson’s immersive, lyrical account of the women’s narrowboat summer, especially the colorful characters they meet along their journey.” Booklist

Praise for Meet Me at the Museum

Short-listed for the Costa First Novel Award

“The charmer of the summer…A touching, hopeful story about figuring out what matters and mustering the courage to make necessary changes.” —NPR

“How subtle. How perceptive… Gently provoking, delving into how we interact with our children, our spouses, our communities, but mostly with ourselves.” Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Lovely.” Woman’s Day (Editor’s Choice)

“Beautifully written and deeply moving.” –Shelf Awareness

Discussion Questions

1. Discuss Eve’s description of life on the Number One: “Eve concentrated on the experience of travelling. The rhythm of movement along a canal, the tramp of feet on the towpath like a song without notes. This was not about the destination; the point was the travelling, at a speed that allowed change to occur at the rate of one hundred yards every minute.” Have you ever experienced travel like that? What unique insights does it offer?

2. Sally describes the narrowboat community as being “rooted in a geography that was defined by its distance end to end rather than by boundaries round a fixed center.” How does that geographic orientation affect life on the canals and the relationships that develop there?

3. One of the unexpected joys for Eve of narrowboat travel is that all of her problems are immediate: “As long as she needed to think ahead only as far as the next tap, the next locks, the next mooring, Eve had no room to worry about the next month, the next year.” How is life different for Eve and Sally on the Number One? Do you see the appeal of that lifestyle? Could you imagine yourself doing what they did?

4. Is the “Easy Plan” that Eve, Sally, and Anastasia come up with actually easy? Discuss the ways in which it is both easy and difficult for each of them. How do the three women approach the big decisions they face in this novel? Is there an element of randomness inherent in decision-making?

5. When Sally’s hairdresser asks why she is divorcing Duncan, she replies, “it’s sometimes harder to endure the everyday than it is to cope with a big trauma.” What do you think she means? Do you agree? What do you make of her reasons to end her marriage?

6. Sally has a camera with her on the trip but reflects that “taking photos as they travelled in the Number One was as unlikely as taking photos at her kitchen sink. This was not a holiday. It was life, going on in unrecorded moments.” What do you think she means? How does her perspective bump up against our current social media culture, in which everyday life is often recorded in photos and text?

7. Billy says of Trompette: “She saved my life and so we are bound together for eternity. I cannot leave her because I owe her too much; she cannot leave me because she has taken to herself the responsibility for my well-being.” What do you make of their relationship? How does the idea of holding responsibility for someone else’s life run throughout this novel, beyond Billy and Trompette?

8. Sally reflects: “After all, was it not important to change every aspect of her routines? How else would she be able to identify those hooks and burrs that held her, like the flag on a flagpole, free to flap about but not free to drift or soar?” Do you agree that sometimes it’s necessary to change everything in your life? Have you ever had the opportunity to do that, or have you dreamed about doing that? Discuss.

9. For Eve, life on the Number One helps her understand the ways in which her highly-structured life both helped and hindered her: “previously, any change she had made had been within a structure she understood; it was not until now, on the verge of changing everything, that she understood the boundaries that had enabled her to make decisions easily, because the choices were limited, and familiar.” Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of structure. How important are boundaries or lack thereof in your own life?

10. Billy tells several stories on the canal over the course of the novel, which are often a mix of fact and fiction. He describes his stories as capturing “a version of the truth…A storyteller’s version.” How can truth be different than fact, especially when it comes to storytelling (and novel writing)? What purpose to Billy’s stories serve in the narrative?

11. What do you make of Anastasia’s relationship with Arthur? Were you surprised by the nature of that relationship when it was revealed? What about Owen? Discuss the different kinds of family relationships we encounter in the novel. How are those similar to and different than the friendships?

12. Sally and Eve both read Arthur’s book recommendation, Mr. Lucton’s Freedom. What does the novel mean to each of those three characters? Discuss the book’s “optimistic” message: “It was good to leave, but there is pleasure in going back.” How does that idea hold true (or not) for the various characters in The Narrowboat Summer?

13. After they’ve known each other for several weeks, Eve tells Sally, “You’ve turned into someone else entirely.” When Sally disagrees, Eve revises: “You are the person you’ve always been but that person is just rising to the surface.” Do you think Sally, Eve, Anastasia, and Trompette change over the course of the novel, or do they simply become truer versions of themselves? Is there a difference?

14. What do you think Plan Number One will entail? What does the future hold for these characters?Which character did you feel most drawn to and invested in by the novel’s end?

Excerpt

1

The Number One

ON THE TOWPATH OF a canal in a town not far from London, not far from the coast, is moored a narrowboat painted dark blue with the name Number One picked out in red lettering on the prow. It is tethered tightly to the bank with ropes made wet by the rain and slimy with age, wrapped around pegs bent out of shape by the misaimed blows of a lump hammer. It is still in the water. At either end the doors are fast shut and the windows along the side are latched. On the roof is a skylight, cantilevered up to let the fresh air into the cabin below. Puddles of water on the deck and roof show that it has been raining, but at this moment it is not.

There are two people on the towpath, walking toward each other. One is a tall, relatively plump woman: that is to say, around half the number of women in her age group—she has gone some distance past fifty—would be slimmer and shorter than she is, but she is not so tall or so plump as to be remarkable. In one hand she has an orange carrier bag and on her feet a pair of bright silver running shoes; these might not be out of place on a towpath but are out of place with her black wool skirt and tailored blouse. Her hair is wrapped up in a largely colorless scarf, apparently once purple.

The woman approaching her is shorter and more slender. She is carrying an umbrella in a color often called fuchsia, though fuchsias come in a range of colors. She is holding it at her side—not needing its protection at the moment—but open, as if anxious about the time it would take to bring it into use if she should suddenly need it. Her hair is carefully styled and her clothes might have been carefully chosen to be unremarkable. If so, the choice was successful.

As they approach the moored boat, the sun inserts a finger of light between the clouds and it is all at once a lovely day, at that moment, on that towpath. At almost the same instant, when the two women are close enough to each other for a nod and a smile of greeting, if either or both of them thought that was appropriate—they are complete strangers, so it seems unlikely—at that precise moment, the narrowboat begins to howl. It howls as if it were a mezzo-soprano in mid-aria spotting her husband committing adultery in the stalls while being impaled from behind by a careless spear carrier. Both women stop walking.

* * *

EVE’S HANDS WERE FULL OF the debris of a career of more than thirty years. She kicked aside the Strategic Five Year Plan, folded and wedging the door open, to let it shut behind her. What she was carrying now were items so small and insignificant she had overlooked them when she had made a pile of things definitively hers: the books, pen set, files of personal information that could not be claimed as property of the Rambusch Corporation. These had been placed into a cardboard box supplied by the management. The packing had been not so much overseen as attended by Clive, a representative (ironically, because neither word could accurately be applied to him) of the Human Resources department. He stood beside her, rumbling idly like a vacuum cleaner (which he closely resembled) switched on and ready to suck if anything misplaced came within reach of his hose. That had been the day before, the penultimate day. Now, on the last day, she stood in the corridor holding things so odd and familiar they had been invisible. The plastic frog stuck to the side of her computer monitor; the postcard of a building in New York pinned to the cork board; a calendar from an overseas charity with six more pictures of starving children still to come; a mug with a picture of a hedgehog on top of a scrubbing brush and a brown deposit welded to the bottom; a letter opener with what looked like teeth marks in its bamboo handle; a purple scarf that had been tied to the handle of a filing cabinet for so long it had faded along its exposed length and only revealed its original, shocking depth of color on the inside of the knot; a photograph of a team-building exercise, the participants all in hard yellow hats standing under a cliff holding up ropes in triumph, though whether after or in anticipation of an ascent or descent she could not remember. She nearly dropped this in the bin, already full of discarded good-luck cards, but closer scrutiny revealed that no one in the picture was recognizable as an individual—though she could pick herself out as the only woman in the group—so she used it as a tray on which to pile the rest of the rubbish.

The door shut with a hiss from its automatic closure system. The nameplate—Eve Warburton: Planning—swung toward her, stopping inches from her nose. Had she had a hand free, she might have defaced it in some way, but in the circumstances she just leaned forward and gave it a kiss.

“Goodbye, Eve Warburton, Planning,” she whispered. “Nice to have known you.”

First the scarf then the frog then the letter opener fell from her stack on the way to the lift. She recovered them all and stopped in the lobby to ask the receptionist for a carrier bag. The receptionist went to look in a cubicle in the wall behind her desk. Eve put her pile down on the counter and watched the oil circulating in the installation designed to impress the visitor with the technical brilliance of the Rambusch Corporation’s engineering and manufacturing capability, its mastery of pumps, pistons and valves. Her eye caught the plastic sign on it which read:

Constructed from Production Parts

Eve took up the letter opener and levered this off. One final souvenir. She pushed it down the front of her skirt.

The girl returned with a disposable carrier bag from the local sandwich outlet.

“It’s all I can find.”

“It will do,” said Eve. It was hard to stop the pilfered notice sliding out as she loaded a carrier bag with small, odd-shaped items, until the receptionist, interpreting her clumsiness as evidence of emotional turmoil, did the job for her.

“I’m, you know, sorry you’re leaving,” she said.

“It was time to move on.”

“I thought of you, having to work with all those men on the top floor. I mean, no one to have a gossip with and that.”

“They didn’t have much of a feminine side, by and large,” said Eve.

“Oh, I know!” The receptionist came out from behind her barrier with the filled bag. Eve was afraid she might be about to offer a hug, in compensation for Eve’s fall from the masculine heights of the fourth floor to mere womanhood.

“Luckily for me, I’m on the masculine side of the feminine spectrum,” she said.

She turned left out of the building, toward where her car would normally be parked—indeed, where it was parked—but even as her hand reached into her pocket for the keys, she remembered it was no longer hers. Company property. She could call a taxi or catch a bus or walk. She had no intention of going back inside the building for the rest of her life, and this ruled out a taxi because the number of the local firm was in her surrendered company mobile. It was raining, but she did not want to hesitate in full view of the receptionist, so she began to walk. It was a long way, in kitten heels, from the Rambusch premises to the edge of the industrial estate. It was a fairly hefty hike up a hill to the first bus stop on the main road. The notice filched from the lobby display impeded her stride, so she took it out and thought about lobbing it over a hedge but on second thought put it in the carrier bag. The rain falling on her head slid in large drops down her perfectly conditioned hair into the top of her blouse, into her ears and her mouth. She took out the faded scarf and tied it over her head. She felt like a bag lady; she rather hoped she looked like a bag lady. It could be a new career.

When she reached the first bus stop she leaned against it, resting her feet until a bus arrived and she bought a ticket into town. Once there, she went into a bookshop and found an Ordnance Survey map of the area showing all the paths and alleyways so that she could plot a route back to her flat on foot, avoiding the main roads she normally drove down. She went next door to a shoe shop and bought a pair of running shoes. These were handed over in a brilliantly orange and substantial carrier bag, big enough to take all her belongings from the office, the kitten heels and the notice. From the map, she found that the quickest way home was to start down the towpath. Just as the rain was stopping, she set off.

Walking toward her was a woman her own age. Between them was a dark-blue narrowboat, apparently deserted. The name painted in red lettering on the prow was Number One.

* * *

ON THE WALK TO THE hairdresser it began to rain, which was something Sally had not foreseen. Raindrops, she reflected, were falling on her head, although the song was entirely inappropriate in her current circumstances.

“My word,” said the hairdresser as Sally dripped on the mat. “You didn’t come prepared.”

Sally had known Lynne for over twenty years. Twenty years of a relationship conducted in reflection, meeting each other’s eyes in the mirror. They had talked about everything in that time. They had exchanged information about children, holidays, kitchen appliances and plumbers. They had shared opinions about soap operas, brands of ice cream, chewing gum and British Summer Time. They had discussed renewable energy, interest rates, the Middle East and mobile phones. It was always a shock to her to stand up—after she had been shown a glimpse of the back of her head and had the cut hair brushed from her shoulders, the nylon coverall whisked away—to find that she was taller than Lynne. How could someone who had filled the mirror so emphatically for half an hour or more be so dumpy an individual in the real world? She only came to this part of the town to visit the Kut Above, and had never seen Lynne in the street. She sometimes wondered if she would recognize her if she came across her queuing for a prescription in Boots. And yet, she thought of Lynne as her friend, and had done so ever since the day she had said she would rather be called Sally than Mrs. Allsop, and Lynne had agreed.

Sally had something to say on this visit; with Lynne’s face in the mirror to frame the story, she could say it and, in saying it, fix it.

Lynne combed Sally’s wet hair, persuading it into a smooth and elegant shape unlike its usual wispy incoherence.

“Just tidied up a bit?” she said, as she always did.

“I wondered about highlights,” said Sally. “Not today, of course. Next time, maybe.”

Lynne said it would be a fiddly process. “And I’m not sure what color you’d use. Your hair’s so fair, and so fine, it would be hard to find a color that was a strong enough contrast, without going completely over the top.”

“Pink,” said Sally. “Or turquoise.”

“Of course, but you wouldn’t want that. We could get away with a nutty brown, if you’re set on the idea.”

“But I do want pink or turquoise, I haven’t made up my mind which.”

“Well,” said Lynne. “What’s brought this on?”

“New beginning,” said Sally. “Fresh start. My new career as a single person.” The scissors and comb became quite still. Lynne was staring at her in the mirror. “I told my husband last night that our marriage is over. There is no reason why anything, from this moment forward, should be as it has been up to now.”

“I’m so sorry,” whispered Lynne. “Do you want to talk about it, or is it too painful?”

“I’m not at all sorry and I don’t mind talking about it, but it’s the future I’m more excited about.”

“It must be difficult after twenty-five years? I mean, you didn’t seem unhappy. Maybe I’ve had it wrong all this time, but I really thought the two of you were close. Did he…? I mean, you know … After all, men—”

“Duncan is entirely blameless,” said Sally.

Lynne remained still; almost rigid.

“But you must have, well, emotional issues?”

“The only emotion I feel is relief,” Sally said. “And that isn’t an issue.”

“But why?” said Lynne. “There must be a reason?”

“I was bored.”

Lynne’s face, as she brought the scissors and comb back into play with something close to aggression, was becoming quite red, and it was possible she looked cross though Sally had no way of knowing what she looked like when cross, because they had always tended to agree with each other. Sally saw that Lynne, far from admiring her resilience and self-determination, wanted her to be in need of sympathy—as a victim or as the guilty party racked with guilt. She had not foreseen this, and she considered the narrative Lynne was hearing. She was leaving her husband; she had not been abused; she had not been rejected; she did not feel guilty. Yes.

“You obviously don’t approve,” she said.

Lynne clamped her lips together and kept her eyes on Sally’s head, cutting Sally’s hair as if there was a looming deadline after which it would set solid.

“No, I don’t, but of course I don’t know anything about it. I just know that being married isn’t easy and it’s up to us all to work at it and not just throw up our hands and walk away as if it never mattered in the first place.”

“On the other hand,” said Sally, “it’s sometimes harder to endure the everyday than it is to cope with a big trauma.”

“If you say so.”

“I think I’ll have my gap year now,” said Sally. “Twelve months of doing something I wouldn’t normally and probably won’t ever do again.”

“Like what?”

“I haven’t decided. I expect something will turn up.”

It was still raining when she left the Kut Above. She stepped into a corner shop and bought a folding umbrella in a shade of pink she thought might be an exact match for the highlights she was imagining. She would be going somewhere else to have them done. After all, was it not important to change every aspect of her routines? How else would she be able to identify those hooks and burrs and combinations that held her, like the flag on a flagpole, free to flap about but not free to drift or soar.

The umbrella was less easy to manipulate than the label had promised it would be, but it kept the rain off her hair, which had the bounce and body only Lynne had ever been able to give it. The rain stopped as she crossed the canal bridge and, on an impulse, she took the steps down to the towpath. It was possible to walk most of the way home by this route, but she rarely did. It was muddy; there were no shops; the people who lived in the boats moored alongside had more than the average householder in the way of untrustworthy dogs, dubious houseplants, bare feet and rusty bicycles. It being an unusual route for her was one good reason to set off down it today. Another was that it was longer. It would delay her return to the house. She had told him she was going because she wanted peace; she wanted silence and the chance to think. But the silence consequent on announcing that decision was surprisingly hard to bear. And she could not decide where, exactly, she wanted to go.

So she took the long way back, along the towpath, walking slowly and, because she no longer needed it, swinging the pink umbrella by its strap. Walking toward her was a woman her own age. Between them was a dark-blue narrowboat, apparently deserted. The name painted in red lettering on the prow was Number One.

* * *

EVE WARBURTON AND SALLY ALLSOP stood still on the towpath, halted by an unearthly crescendo of sound. They looked at the boat, until the noise died away, then at each other.

“Was that human?” asked Sally.

Eve said she hoped not. “But whatever it was, it doesn’t seem right to ignore it.”

Sally advanced toward the Number One and bent her knees to look through the window. The noise began again, accompanied by the thud of something solid being propelled with force against the glass. She staggered backward, lost her balance and sat down on the worn and wet grass of the towpath. Eve skipped sideways to avoid her but became entangled in the open pink umbrella. As the wailing died away again, they were left sitting side by side facing the boat.

“It’s a dog,” said Sally.

“Are you sure? Could it have been a child, do you think?”

“Not unless they’ve started breeding them with black-and-white fur and floppy ears.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Dogs I can cope with. Children terrify me.” Eve stood up and looked at the skylight on the roof. “You’ll have to slide through that hatch to make sure it’s all right,” she said. “I’m too fat.”

Sally made no effort to move.

“I’m sorry to have to tell you that my expertise is entirely in the field of children,” she said. “It’s dogs that terrify me. There is no way I’m going to dangle my legs into a space occupied by a dog—a rabid dog, for all I know.” Eve stood with her hands on her hips. “Why is it,” said Sally, scrambling to her feet, “that it is perfectly acceptable to say you don’t like children but admitting that you don’t care for dogs always makes people look at you just like you’re looking at me?”

“I’m not looking at you the way you think I’m looking at you. I’m not really looking at you at all. I’m thinking.”

The noise came again, rising to a peak of unutterable anguish and dying away. The weight of the dog’s body hammered against the window. They took a step back and looked up and down the empty towpath and over their shoulders at the motorists passing across the distant bridge.

“We can’t do nothing,” said Eve.

“We could just walk away,” said Sally.

But she did not walk away. She stayed where she was, watching Eve climb onto the rear of the boat, which rocked gently, and inspect the fastenings on the solid little door leading off the platform where the driver would stand, holding the tiller, if the boat were moving. Eve abandoned the back and went to the front, an open well protected by a canvas cover held taut with studs. She began to unclip these, one by one, and Sally, seeing this was going to be a slow business, went to help her. When they had released one side and folded the cover back, Eve climbed into the well. The doors at this end had glass in them, a scaled-down version of the doors you might find leading into a conservatory at a stately home. The dog began to howl again, on a more tragic, personal note. Eve took up a heavy metal tool lying on one of the benches that lined the wall and broke the glass. It became eerily quiet.

“What’s happening?” asked Sally, from the towpath.

“I’m reaching in to release the … Oh! Quick, catch him!”

Seconds later Eve was splayed awkwardly across the side of the well, Sally was once again in a sitting position on the bank, and a bundle of black-and-white fur and floppy ears had already passed the bridge and was accelerating down the towpath.

“Bugger,” said Eve.

Sally lay flat on her back and began to laugh.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know it’s not funny, but I woke up this morning determined to stop being so bored and boring, and not to keep on doing the same things I always do. And look, something has happened to me that has never happened before. Quite spontaneously.”

“Breaking into a boat and releasing a manic dog has never happened to me before, either,” said Eve, “but I was just racking it up as another experience in a totally shitty day. You must be the sort of person who always looks on the bright side.”

“I don’t, usually. But today, I’m embracing change. For a change.”

“I don’t mind embracing it, but I do like to have a choice of whether to change or not. When someone else decides for you, it’s harder to look on the bright side.”

Eve was still sprawled in the well, wedged against a gas bottle with a couple of folding chairs impeding her feet. Her orange bag had fallen on its side and hanging out of it was a plastic notice which read: Constructed from Production Parts.

Sally, reaching down a hand to help her up, asked what it meant.

“Nothing at all. It is meaningless. That’s the point. Constructed and produced are synonyms. It is meant to imply that the parts are not prototypes, but prototypes are produced, as well. Sorry, I’m being cross and pedantic. More importantly, what do you think we ought to do now?”

* * *

THEY WERE SITTING ON THE benches in the front well discussing the options—whether to run away, like the dog, or to run away but leave a note; or whether it was imperative to take some positive action, such as chasing the dog or seeking out the owner—when they became aware of a rhythmic sound coming closer. Looking out from under the awning they could see a figure advancing toward them along the towpath. An exclamation mark: tall, narrow, black and slightly menacing. The sound was the steady thud of wellington boots, the regular smack of a leather satchel against a waterproof coat, and an underlying whistle of breath drawn in and let out.

They scrambled out of the boat and stood waiting for this finger of doom to pass by. It didn’t. Setting down the satchel on the ground, the woman—for close up she was recognizably though unconventionally female—looked from one to the other. Her face was the color of marmalade and so mapped with wrinkles it was hard to see how any cosmetic enhancements, in the unlikely event she wanted to apply them, could be smoothed on to its corrugated surface. Her lips were thin and appeared, until she opened them to speak, like one more set of horizontal wrinkles.

“You’ve been on my boat,” she said. “You’d better explain why.” The voice was an audible version of the face.

“I’m afraid I’ve broken your door and let the dog out,” said Eve.

“There didn’t seem much else we could do,” said Sally. “It was howling.”

The boat owner opened her mouth a little wider and bared a set of uneven teeth. She ran a gray, textured tongue over them and nodded.

“People who think the dog is howling because it’s in pain,” she said, “usually report me to the RSPCA, or the Canal and River Trust, or the Environment Agency, or the police, or anyone else they can think of who might be interested in giving me grief. It makes them feel righteous and it passes the problem on. I like your approach better. If the dog’s in pain, smash a way in and sort it out. I like that. I’d say you cared more about the dog and less about the law. I like that, too.”

“We thought it might be dying,” said Sally.

The old woman shook her head. “He was showing off, that’s all. I’m the one who’s dying.”

She picked up her satchel and stepped onto the rear of the boat, unlocking the doors.

“Well, I should give you some money to have the glass replaced,” said Eve.

“It’s not worth it. The cost of repairing anything on a boat is higher than you could believe, given everything is so small and should logically be cheaper. I’ll probably nail a bit of wood over it until I come across a piece of glass the right size.”

“We could come in and sweep up the mess,” said Sally.

“You can do that, yes. And you can have a cup of tea with me. I’d like that. I’ve taken a fancy to you already.”

Inside, the boat was sparse, neat and workmanlike. The cabin they entered as they descended the steps from the rear deck was the kitchen. It had a cooker and cupboards, a table and two benches, a plastic washing-up bowl in the sink and a kettle on the hob. There were no ornaments and no ornamentation. The wood-paneled walls were empty except for a map and a row of hooks from which hung a torch, a whistle, a dog lead and a first-aid kit. The old woman reached into a cupboard and handed them a dustpan, brush and bucket; they carried these through the boat, accepting shared responsibility for the mess, or a shared reluctance to stay alone with the owner in the kitchen.

The second cabin had a board attached to the wall, which might have been a bed or a couch though it had no covering to make it inviting to sit on or lie on, with lockers underneath. There were three shelves containing books. Between this and the next cabin were a washbasin and a cubicle with a door, which was shut. In the front cabin were two slatted bunks covered in rough blankets, tightly tucked in; these blankets represented the only soft surfaces on the boat. Sally and Eve swept up the shards of glass from the otherwise clean floor and returned to the cabin, where the old woman relieved them of the pan and brush, the bucket and its contents, disposing of them behind the cupboard doors.

“My name is Anastasia,” she said, laying out three white mugs and three teabags, and indicating they should sit down on one of the benches. The kettle whistled throatily.

“Oh,” said Sally, “what about the dog?”

“He’s called Noah and, before you ask, it’s got nothing to do with boats. It just begins with the sound I find myself shouting most often.”

“No,” said Sally. “I meant, shouldn’t we be worried about where he’s gone? Go looking for him perhaps, or report him missing?”

“Look,” said Anastasia, lining up the teas on the table, “stop worrying about the dog. Nothing will happen to him. That dog will be dogging me to the end of my days and beyond, I shouldn’t wonder. He will come back. Not many certainties in this life, but that’s one of them.”

“Oh,” said Sally. “My name’s Sally.”

“Eve,” said Eve.

“Sally,” said Anastasia. “And Eve and Anastasia. An E and an A and an S. Which spells SEA, I suppose. Not much sense in that. A Y would be handy, to make us EASY. You don’t have any friends called Yolanda you could introduce?”

“My middle name is Yasmin,” said Sally.

“Perfect. Here we are, then: Easy!”

The tea was so strong Sally and Eve took small sips, letting the tannin into their systems in gradual doses. Anastasia drank hers like a pint of beer, in large gulps, with relish.

“Actually,” she said, putting the empty mug down, “I may not be dying. Dying may not be inevitable. There is a chance that what’s wrong with me now can be made to go away and I may still have the opportunity to die later, of something else. But making the effort not to die would be quite complicated and I’m not sure I can work out how to accomplish it. So it might be easier to go for it, and die from what I’ve got now.”

“And what is that?” asked Eve.

“They don’t know exactly, or they do know and they’re not going to tell me until they have scanned it from every angle and have biopsy results on anything they can scrape or squeeze or slice out of me. That, you see, is the problem. In order to have a chance of not dying, I have to keep going back for this appointment, that appointment, this procedure, that procedure, such-and-such an operation, belt and braces, follow-up treatments. And to do all that, I have to stay here.”

“Surely you must stay here, then. At least until you have a clear diagnosis and understand your options,” said Sally.

“I can’t,” said Anastasia. “I can’t afford to. If I stay, I have to pay for a mooring, if I can find one, or keep moving between temporary moorings, and I haven’t the money for the one, and who knows when the invasive this and the radiated that will make me too weak to manage the other. Plus, I’ve got the boat to look after. To get all the certificates needed to renew my license to be on the canal, I have to have the engine serviced and the bottom blacked. I can’t afford any of that either, but I know someone with a boatyard in Chester who will do it for me for free, but I need it done by the second week in August. It would take me at least four weeks to reach Chester from here, and that would be without any rest days, so I need to start now. There it is. If I want to live, I have to stay here. If I’m going to carry on living the way I do, I have to go to Chester.”

“There must be some way round this,” said Eve.

“Oh, there is. I need someone with nothing better to do for, let’s say, the next three or four months, and a house I can borrow to live in while they take the boat to Chester and back for me.”

“And you don’t know anyone like that?” said Eve.

“With a house and time? Not likely, is it?”

“I don’t have anything better to do for the next four months,” said Sally, “but there’s someone living in my house.”

“You couldn’t do it alone anyway,” said Anastasia. “I can, but you couldn’t.”

There was the slightest sound from the rear of the boat, a mere hint of a tap or a scratch. Anastasia sat up and turned her head. It was the dog, returning with as little noise as possible.

Once fully in the cabin, he turned out to be a medium-sized, terrier-like animal with a rough whitish coat with black blotches, long legs, a barrel-shaped body, floppy ears, extremely bright brown eyes and a swirl of black on his face that looked remarkably like a question mark.

“Yes?” said Anastasia. The dog lay down, put his head on his paws and raised one eyebrow and ear, then the other. “You know what I think.” The dog appeared, with a judicious blink, to acknowledge that he did, indeed, know what she thought. Nevertheless, she told him, in a bellow that made Eve flinch and Sally, already uneasily shifting on her seat, jump. “You’re a complete disgrace. Why anyone who had the first notion of dog breeding wouldn’t have seen you for the disaster you are at the outset and hit you on the head with a spade I JUST DO NOT KNOW. I’m going to do it myself, one day. One day.”

There was a watchful silence for a moment, then Noah subsided onto his side and went to sleep, almost immediately starting a chorus of whiffling snores that formed the background to the conversation.

“As it happens, I have a flat I live in alone,” said Eve. “And in truth, I’m not sure I can think of anything to stop me using the next four months to travel about on the canals.”

“Am I right in thinking,” said Anastasia, “that you have absolutely no idea how to drive a boat? Have either of you ever set foot on a canal boat before your assault on the Number One?”

“No,” said Eve.

“Nor me,” said Sally.

“But you expect me to trust her to you, do you?”

“No, of course you couldn’t,” said Sally.

“Hang on,” said Eve, “I’m getting confused. Didn’t you tell us only a minute ago that you needed someone to do you a favor, and now you’re talking as if you would be doing us a favor.”

Anastasia sucked her teeth and slowly unbuttoned the waterproof coat she was still wearing.

“I suppose you could do it together, if I taught you the basics. But are you good enough friends to put up with each other?”

“We’re not friends at all,” said Sally.

“We’ve only just met. Rescuing your dog,” said Eve.

“That is probably all to the good,” said Anastasia. “You could be most of the way to Chester before you found out how annoying the other one is.”

There was a long pause. Then Anastasia began to smile; although the corrugated severity of her face meant it was not immediately clear that this was the expression she had in mind.

“I’m not at all sure…” said Eve.

“What about the dog?” asked Sally.

“He’d come with you.”

“This is ridiculous,” Eve said. “You only met us five minutes ago and you don’t know the first thing about us. Wouldn’t you want to check on us in some way? Make sure we’re not alcoholics or drug dealers or something?”

“Here’s the thing,” said Anastasia. “Most of the people I know in the boating community are alcoholics or drug dealers or simply wasters. But they do know how to handle a boat. So of course I have thought of asking someone I know to take the Number One to Chester for me, while I live in his or her boat here in Uxbridge. Now you two turn up; never seen you before and you don’t know how to handle a boat. But from where I’m sitting, I don’t have either of you down as abusers of any kind. So as I see it, I have a choice between tapping a competent person I wouldn’t want on the Number One, or two total incompetents, who haven’t given me any reason to object to them. And, let’s face it, that is one more choice than I had earlier today.”

“We’re an unexpected gift,” Sally said.

Eve turned sideways and looked at Sally. “Are you seriously thinking of doing this?” she asked.

“I have no idea. It’s too much for me to think about. But I’m definitely not doing it on my own.”

Anastasia and Sally looked at Eve. Noah stopped snoring and raised his head an inch or two and looked at her, too.

“We could think about it,” Eve said. “Put a plan together. Work out the details.”

“We could,” said Sally. “Think about it, I mean.”

Anastasia went beyond a smile into something that seemed to be laughter.

“Easy,” she said.

* * *

EVE COULD THINK OF NOTHING at all to think about. The bend ahead was five hundred yards away and it would take about ten minutes to reach it. Between now and then, there was nothing that clamored for attention. No change in the trees growing down either side of the canal; no hazards that would challenge her ability to remember to push the tiller to the left to move the boat to the right; no plans to make for what would happen next. That morning she had woken on the hard bed made up on the bench in the middle cabin, conscious of not having decided, the night before, what to wear. The anxiety was acute until, wide awake, she realized it was irrelevant. She had no need to worry because she had almost no clothes to choose from and it mattered not at all what she wore. Nor could she think of anything else to worry about. It was worrying.

Hearing the chink of mugs as Sally came through the cabin with two cups of coffee, it occurred to her that she might worry about how long it would take her to find this stranger intolerable. What would be the amalgam of habits, opinions, idiosyncrasies and character defects which made everyone she had ever known impossible to live with, sooner or later. But for the moment, she had not spotted what these were, and there was, therefore, no point worrying about it.

* * *

It had taken ten days from meeting Sally and Anastasia to this, the first day of the journey. The decision, in retrospect, had been made in those ten minutes on the Number One, but Eve was a planner and she had nothing but contempt for people who rushed into things without taking the time to think them through, weigh the advantages and disadvantages, map out the steps, make contingency plans for the most likely risks along the way. So while the idea of moving out of her flat and onto a boat had seemed like a gift, the present she most needed—that is, a chance to walk away, avoid making any other decisions, silence the analysis of the past that would not let her sleep at night, yet to reach out and accept it without further thought—was beyond her.

She had gone home along the towpath and washed the mud off her new shoes. Then she went through the bag she had brought from the office and threw out the frog, the postcard, the faded headscarf, the filthy mug and the damaged letter opener. She looked at the two things left, the framed photo of a team-building adventure and the stolen notice about production parts. Then she threw out the notice: its internal inconsistencies were symptomatic of the circulating arguments running around her head, the apparent logic that appeared to lead to a reasoned conclusion that turned out to be the same place as the start. She kept the photo, as a fitting memento of the uniformity of the society she had left, and a happy reminder that she did not exactly match, was not truly one of them.

That sorted, she opened her laptop and began to put together the Easy Plan, as a way of reaching a conclusion on whether it was or wasn’t a stupid idea. She laid out the milestones on the critical path, studying the implications of each—how hard would it be to achieve, how serious would the result be if it were not achieved, or if its critical success factors could only partially be met. At the end of this, late at night, with the last glass from a bottle of Chilean Merlot at her elbow and the street outside her open window quiet at last, she went over the results and realized there was nothing to stop her from agreeing to the plan. There was no step she was unwilling or unable to take. This moment was the high point of the next ten days.

The following morning, she took the plan to the pre-arranged meeting at the Number One and laid out copies in front of Anastasia and Sally. Anastasia picked hers up and wriggled her lips, hummed a tune and put it down again.

“That much is obvious,” she said.

Sally looked down at hers as if it were an exam paper. Finally, she looked up.

“Does this mean we’re going to do it?” she asked.

“It means I can’t see any reason why we shouldn’t,” Eve said. “How about you?”

“I need a bit more time,” said Sally.

As they left the boat the day before, Eve had detected in Sally a suspicion of the “let’s just go for it” attitude she so despised. Now she feared the opposite: that Sally would turn out to be one of those people who, when the plan had been put together and agreed by all parties, took fright and could not be persuaded to set off along the path. She understood one thing, though, as a result of Sally’s reaction. She herself really, really wanted to do this.

* * *

What had seemed possible while sitting on the Number One with those two extraordinary women in front of her, felt like a fantasy to Sally—worse, a joke, ridiculous—as she put her key into the lock of 42 Beech Grove. Just the idea of framing the words she would have to use to explain what she was thinking (dreaming) of doing was beyond her. The house was so emphatically the same. The disposition of its contents, its particular smell, the minor blemishes on its walls and floors, the angle at which the sun fell through the kitchen window onto the tiled floor, were mocking her with their familiarity, their permanence.

Yet she had said the most unthinkable words already. She had sat beside Duncan at the kitchen table and told him she could no longer go through the motions of being the person everyone thought she was happy to be: wife, mother, classroom assistant, resident of 42 Beech Grove. As she talked, Duncan’s eyes never met hers but stayed on the cover of a magazine lying on the table between them. A TV Guide for the next week with a photo on the cover of one of those women with perfect faces and a name beginning with K—Katie or Keira or Kylie. A flake of crust from the bread she had cut to make sandwiches at lunchtime had landed on the photo and was obscuring one of the famous K’s front teeth. It made her look as if some disease or lack of hygiene had led to the formation of a yellowish crust on the perfection of her pearly white molar. Sally reached out a hand to brush it away, because it didn’t seem fair to leave her like that, but stopped the movement, not wanting to let it appear she had allowed her attention to be diverted, in the middle of destroying her husband’s life, by a stray, disfiguring crumb.

Duncan was a man who never stopped talking, who shared his every thought with her as it came into his mind, and she had expected a torrent of words. Instead, he said, “I need to think about this,” and left the room. Only later did she realize he had left the house. She heard him come back in the middle of the night and go into the room that used to be her son’s bedroom when he lived at home. All he had said to her since, as he left for work in the morning, was: “You know I love you.” That was it. All day, having her hair cut, meeting Anastasia and Eve, forming the plan for the Number One, walking home, she had been tasting freedom. But the house whispered to her, as she put the new, pink umbrella in the pot where the other umbrellas lived, did you think it would be that easy? Did you really think you were getting away?

She let the evening pass. Nothing was said, on any topic, by either of them. They ate a meal Sally had cooked in an unnatural, uncomfortable silence. After all, Sally thought, no rush; Eve might not agree to go, and she felt the bitter taste of disappointment at the thought.

Then she went back to the Number One and Eve came up with a piece of paper that made it all real. Sally could make no sense of the plan—it was all nonsense, too complicated, she thought, too much detail for what would be simple, once they got started. If they could only decide to start. And in the end, even that turned out to be simple. She said to Duncan:

“I’ve met a couple of women who want me to help them take a canal boat up to Chester.”

“Are you going?”

“I thought I might.”

“It’s up to you, obviously.” He licked his fingers and picked up the last crumbs of cake on his plate. “But it sounds like a good idea. You should do it.”

Her relief that he did not have an opinion, need to discuss the ins and the outs, want to analyze the pros and the cons, as she had expected, was tempered with a fear that it was too easy. He had not believed her when she said the marriage was over, was thinking this would be “a little holiday” that would make her see sense and the problem would go away.

“It will give you time to sort things out,” she said, collecting up the empty plates. “What you want to do. About the house and so on.”

“Lots to do, yes,” he said. “Lots to think about.”

The next day she went back to the Number One and declared her readiness to go ahead with Eve’s Easy Plan.

* * *

THEY ALL HAD THINGS THEY felt they needed to do first and they went their separate ways to do them.

Eve had thought of her life as full. She had made sure of filling it, and the surest way of achieving that was to be always looking ahead, planning for the next change. So in theory, this should have been a simple process for her. Going away for a few months—she was used to doing that. But previously, any change she had made had been within a structure she understood; it was not until now, on the verge of changing everything—where she lived, how she spent her days, who she spent her days with—that she understood the boundaries that had enabled her to make decisions easily, because the choices were limited and familiar.

Her childhood had set the pattern. The only child of peripatetic parents, she had bounced between boarding school, her mother’s family in the rural Midlands, and Dubai or Hong Kong or wherever else her father, a civil engineer, had found work building bridges. Each of these environments had been unlike the others. Her school had been highly polished, a place of hard surfaces and restricting walls and intermittent silence and clatter. Wherever her parents lived was hot, full of color and texture, and—because she was never anywhere long enough to know it—unknowable. Her grandmother and her mother’s extended family lived their lives out of doors, in a green landscape which was always, in memory at least, cold and wet, but where every house was a pocket of coziness. She fitted in to each of these places. She knew where she stood. Even if she sometimes felt she belonged nowhere.

So it had been at university, then at Rambusch. She would have said, as one of an insignificant minority of women in both places—she studied mechanical engineering—that she fitted in, and as she worked her way up the hierarchy at Rambusch, from design engineer to team leader to project manager to director level, she had begun to think she did belong. Until she found out she didn’t. Her career, like her childhood, had been spent on the move: from one plant to another, one office to another, one project to another. She’d always known that in a month, a year, two years she would be somewhere else doing something else, but inside the scaffolding that was Rambusch. She had managed her relationships in the same way. Never expecting or wanting permanence, always looking past the man she was with in anticipation of what came next, which might (and she was fine with this) be solitude.

She made choices all the time—which role to accept, when to start and when to end a relationship—but always knowing the boundaries, the parameters. Now she was without boundaries, and this meant she had an infinity of choices and no certainties. It was unsettling. She did not want to accept being unsettled. As she stood in her flat wondering what to do next, she found herself looking in the direction of the bin where she had thrown the notice from the display in Rambusch’s reception area. She had been constructed from production parts, all this time, while thinking she had chosen the life she led. When she had as much free will as the hydraulic fluid that kept the display moving, going round and round in a purposeless loop.

Now was not the time to waver, she reminded herself. She would do what she always did, and did well: look for practical solutions to practical problems. She went through her flat selecting what to take, what to leave, what to throw out. She went through her contacts selecting who to tell, who not to tell, who to delete. In both cases, the first category was the smallest.

* * *

Sally had to go to the school where she worked as a classroom assistant and arrange to have the rest of the term off. She walked there; she always walked there. Her life was made up of such repetitions. She was a victim of routine, but as soon as this thought occurred to her, on the walk to the school, she repudiated the word “victim.” If she had been trapped, it was because she had allowed it to happen. She could step out now because she was not a victim; she had control.

She did not anticipate any problems in securing leave—unpaid, of course. The school was looking for ways to save money, and the child who had been her special charge was in hospital for an extended stay. She would miss him; the way he rolled his head against the back of his wheelchair to look up at her; his smile, which might not have looked like a smile to anyone else in the classroom but that let her know he was happy, despite his inability to control his own limbs or articulate his thoughts. She would have missed him more, though, if she had stayed to the end of term, his absence not pasted over but emphasized by the chatter and clamor of those children lucky enough to have been born without a disability. She would miss them, too, of course, but they did not need her. Any more than her own children needed her now.

Her daughter and her son had reacted to her decision to leave their father in the ways she would have expected them to react. Amy had talked at her—much as she had thought Duncan would do, when she told him, but he had not. Amy had lost herself in a tangle of emotions expressed largely in recalling incidents from family life (“You were happy then, weren’t you?”) and in comparison with other mothers who had or had not behaved as she was behaving (“I mean, I’d always expected her to do that!”). Beneath all this was the question Sally could not yet fully answer to her own satisfaction: why?

Mark, the quiet one, had said little but looked sad. She found herself starting to apologize to him, but stopped herself. She had no idea what was causing the sadness he was not expressing. Though so much more like her than Amy was, he was the bigger mystery to her.

The conversations with Duncan continued to be eerily short, abnormally to the point. Arrangements for paying the bills; the addresses of the post offices they would pass en route where she would pick up her mail. He had accepted, without argument or analysis, that she was going on this trip. How much more than the trip he had accepted, she could not tell.

When she arrived at the school, Sally found the Head was, or was pretending to be, disappointed and angry that she was leaving early. This was unexpected. Sally kept calm by looking at a drawing of an octopus, colored pink with yellow spots, pinned up on the wall. Behind, Sally thought, the Head’s head; she felt childishly pleased with this thought. Whatever the woman said, it was so much noise. Nothing was going to stop her now.

* * *

Anastasia, it appeared, had set about throwing things out. Though the boat had looked to be empty of everything not strictly necessary, or even emptier, yet when they arrived at the end of the first day of preparation for a review of the next steps, there were several trash bags to be carried to the nearest bins. But her main concern was to introduce them to the boat, and all its workings.

“It’s called the Number One,” she told them, “because that was what the people who owned their own boat and plied for trade up and down the canals were known as. Professionals, in other words. I expect you to bear that in mind. You might be amateurs, but I need you to take the business of managing the boat as seriously as if you weren’t.”

Starting at the stern, where the engine was, lesson one was maintenance. Eve had assumed she wouldn’t need to concentrate to absorb this part of the tour, given her familiarity with the moving parts of machinery more complicated than the old Perkins diesel that drove the boat. Anastasia, however, was so detailed, so insistent and so certain they would let her down, Eve had to jog up the towpath to a garage on the main road and buy a notebook in which all of this, and subsequent lessons, could be recorded.

After the maintenance came the driving. They traveled a mile north, through a lock, turned round and traveled the mile back. The weather had given itself a shake and was dry, bright and breezy. Within half an hour, Eve had gone from outrage at being expected to move forward so slowly to a happy contempt for motorists driving across the bridge they passed beneath, who thought such speed was necessary.

They moved on to equipping the boat with what was needed to provide Eve and Sally with a level of comfort and utility that was, if not within sight of what they were used to, at least within faint hailing distance. Anastasia was tight-lipped about their list of essentials, and gave herself the right of veto over anything coming on board. Out of Sally’s range of kitchen tools for chopping, slicing and mincing, only two knives made it past the gatekeeper.

“What, you think it’s so important to have more than one way of chopping things up you’d risk pounds of metal and plastic smashing my cupboard doors every time you hit a lock gate? Which will be every time you go into a lock.”

Her washing line was also rejected.

“It’ll go overboard and wrap itself round the prop before you’ve gone a dozen miles. And you don’t need it. I have my own system, which is utterly foolproof. Or I hope it is. I don’t think I’ve let a fool near it before now.”

Eve was prevented from taking her hair dryer, iPod dock and electric toothbrush.

“The batteries aren’t connected to the national grid, as you’d realize if you used your brain.”

They both brought quantities of books and both had to take most of them home again.

“You’re meant to be going to Chester, not sitting in an armchair surrounded by unnecessary, unsecured ballast.”

They spent a day moving Anastasia into Eve’s flat. This was superficially simple because she could fit all she needed into two carrier bags, but it felt delicate. She began to diminish as she walked away from the boat. She never looked back at it, as they went down the towpath to the bridge where Sally had parked her husband’s car, but the effort involved in leaving it was engraved in every wrinkle, every unyielding fold of practical fabric, every wheezing breath. In the car, she seemed smaller than she had been, as though this contact with a high-speed, terrestrial world was drying out some vital fluid. Noah came with them, to avoid someone else being ambushed by his unearthly pleas for release, and even though he rattled around in the rear compartment commenting on the experience in falsetto, Anastasia said not a word of reproach.

At the flat, Eve and Sally went into the kitchen to make lunch. They could hear Anastasia moving round, muttering. When they came out with the plates of sandwiches, she was in the middle of the living room, looking aggressive and thus reassuringly more like the woman of the Number One.

“There’s some things you’re going to need to do for me before you go, because I don’t have the strength to do them for myself.”

It took most of the rest of the day to strip the flat of all its softness. Eve would have described her own style as verging on minimalist, but as they sat drinking tea in the environment Anastasia finally declared acceptable, she realized how wrong she had been. She liked the result. Whenever she took on a new department at work, she had applied the “zero budget” approach to identifying the essence and eliminating the padding. Start from the assumption that there is no money and no staff, then assume there is just enough of both for the first essential function to be delivered with maximum efficiency: how much and how many would that be? Add the second essential function, and so on, leaving the inessential on the shelf and emerging with a lean and powerful organization. That at least was the theory. Egos, politics, long-established rights, employment law and other flies had always prevented her from applying the ointment smoothly. Now she thought the same principle could be adopted in relation to her living quarters. Remove everything and stop adding things back in when a state of perfect functionality had been achieved.

As they cleared up in the kitchen, Eve said to Sally: “Anastasia’s not a woman who holds back from expressing an opinion.”

“I admire that,” Sally said. “I’ve gone through life working out what it is that the person I’m talking to would like me to say, and saying it. I’m forever being nice.”

“There’s nothing wrong with being nice. I have a tendency to be a bit confrontational. I’m thinking I must try to be more like you. Nice.”

“I’ll try to be more like you, then. Direct.”

When the rearrangement was complete, they played Scrabble. Eve was better at Scrabble than most of her friends; Sally was as good as she was, as far as she could judge. Anastasia was in a completely different league. Not only did she know words they had never dreamed of (aecia), she was able to pull off tricks like adding “esca” to the beginning of “late,” and managed to use all her letters making “subterfuge” out of “fug.” It was a pleasure, Eve told her, to be beaten by someone with such a mastery of the game.

“There’s a set on the Number One,” said Anastasia. “If you practice, you might improve. Don’t lose any of the tiles. I’ll be counting them when I get the boat back.”

After Sally left, Eve took Noah out and walked along the damp railings in the local park. Another dog barked in the distance and Noah lifted his head from a smell and looked in that direction, then up at Eve.

“Not worth your valuable time,” she murmured. “Not a dog worth bothering with.”

He wagged his tail as if this agreed precisely with his judgment, and went back to the smell.

That night, Eve slept on a futon in the room she used as an office. She slept deeply, but in the morning she remembered half-dreams of a lean, upright figure in a long, plain nightdress moving past her open door from bedroom to kitchen and back. In the daylight, Anastasia’s eyes were red and her steel wool hair more tangled and scratchy than usual.

“Are you going to be all right?” asked Eve.

“No. I told you. The chances are I’m going to die, no matter what.”

“I meant, living here.”

“You know the answer to that, too. If you’re trying to find out whether I’m regretting the Easy deal, then yes, I am. But however much I want to run out of here back to the Number One and carry on as if I’d never bothered asking the bloody doctor about the symptoms, I’ve come to the conclusion that that would be giving up—and giving up is not what I do. I could say I wouldn’t be able to live with myself afterward, but of course the chances are I wouldn’t have to. But I wouldn’t even fancy dying with myself, if I’d let myself down.”

“That’s a relief.”

“You want to do this?”

“I do.”

Anastasia smiled.

Finally, Eve and Sally moved onto the Number One. Eve, with Anastasia’s example so close by her elbow, took changes of underwear, trousers, T-shirts and jumpers. She left behind all her jewelry, her makeup, her high-heeled shoes and anything which needed to be hung up on a hanger. Neatly put away, all these things were a way of life she had stepped out of but could so easily, with the opening of a wardrobe door, step back into. If she chose.

Eve expected Sally to come festooned with suitcases and overnight bags packed with all the clothes she owned, but she was wrong. Sally arrived on foot, with a rucksack and a carrier bag.

“I just walked away,” she said, climbing onto the boat. Eve knew what she meant.

* * *

So here they were, en route, with a bend ahead and the sun shining, the rumble of the engine beneath their feet and the breeze created by their passage ruffling the surface of the coffee in their mugs.

Copyright © 2020 by Anne Youngson.