|Houseboat by apolloduck.co.uk|
The narrator, upon searching for images of houseboats, discovered she favours vintage Dutch barges. Probably because they featured in the stories of her childhood, and even stayed over in a leaky barge that was kept on land.
“This one,” Jack said.
I started running because I saw Hen with a small person clinging to her side. “Du?” I called, planning where I’d put my feet once I was on the deck. I couldn’t fall now.
Hen and Du stood in the shadows under an awning in the middle of a deck crowded with stuff. Coils of rope. Sausages of rolled up fabric (sails?) Bits and pieces of all kinds of materials.
Jack pulled at my shirt. Same handful. “Watch it,” he said.
I looked where he pointed. The edge of the plank-way trembled under my feet. Next step was in a gap a metre wide. Dark green water. “Deep?”
“You bet. That black siding is the hull of the boat. We need to get on board over there.” He led, dragging me by my hand as though I was the little sister. I promised both him and me silently, only where boats and water are concerned, Jacqui-Jack.
A walkway connected the plank-way with the boat’s side. Our feet thumping onto the walkway vibrated the walkway. We jumped down on a plank deck, thud, which vibrated under me with a deeper note. I walked toward Hen, didn’t run, there was just too much unfamiliar gear on the deck.
Hen pulled me and Jack under the tent with her. Hugged me. “I’m so very happy to see you, Kosi Lionhair!” She hugged Jack. “You’re a champion, Jack Fetcher!”
The little person, who was Du, pulled at Hen’s clothes. “Me! Me am a champion too?” she said.
Hen dropped one hand from hugging me and cupped and stroked Du’s head. “You too, my lovely. This is your sister Kosi. Remember me telling you about her?”
Du stuck her thumb in her mouth and looked at Jack and me like we were invaders.
“Down the ladder-stair, you three,” Hen said. “Jack, show Kosi where to put her feet. And, Jack? Please take Du. I need to talk with Rokha and Zee. Maybe even cast off and put out into the river.”
Still the same Hen. Good at conveying an emergency without saying so. Well, it had been an emergency the whole time since Jack and I dived through that crowd on Level 1. How could that affect us out here?
Du started struggling in Jack’s arms as soon as we all heard the hatch above us close. She actually whined, something I’d never heard her do before. “Hen! I want Hen!”
“Miz Henry is busy, it sounds like.” Jack cupped a hand around his ear to listen better.
I did the same and listened too. So did Du in the end, thumb still in her mouth.
Two pairs of footsteps arrived running along the plank-way. Splash-ash. Splash-ash. Splash-ash. Two voices. Rokha and Zee speaking in quick short murmured sentences.
“Did you warn the rest of the boats?” Hen said. Her voice as clear as if she stood next to us.
Jack pointed at a vent on the wall among a dozen pictures of all kinds of places and things. With a glance I recognized a couple that Hen brought to the Tween House for me to borrow, the waterfall with trees and plants and mosses surrounding it, and the scary cactus in a sandy desert. Hen’s voice was calm. Zee was nervous, with quick spurts of murmured words.
“Jack,” said Jack’s BigEar. He turned away to talk.
I recognised Rokha’s voice. I looked around the room, like an Aladdin’s cave, with coloured cloths hanging from the walls, over chairs, and one rich red fringed rug draped over a table just the same as the meal-time table in the Tween House.
“My cubby,” Du said, seeing where I looked. She dropped to her knees and crawled under the table. Sat there staring at me through the fringing. Glowering. Finally lying back on a couple of cushions, like a princess. But staring me gone.
And there were the framed prints. A kangaroo. A pair of galahs. Also statuettes, also of animals, and the tableaus. They were the little trays with a scene to take apart and build up again. I looked for the little space elevator.
Hen had so many of the little scenes, I realised now, that some had to be stored in boxes on shelves. And one wall was all shelves. But overflow stuff stood on every surface, at the edges of the floor, on the table. Dress-up things hung from the ceiling and the walls. Loops of calico bunched things and bows of silk frottage tied them to make a passage through for walking among all the gear.
I smiled, despite the flavour of emergency in the air. This room resembled the disaster in Hen’s stories that was always waiting to happen if I didn’t keep the Tween House tidy. Then I saw my absolute favourite object when I was an angry seven. Hen let me borrow it for months.
Du sat up as I crossed the room in two steps and picked up the glass sphere with snow in it. Hen encouraged me to shake up a storm in it whenever I felt stormy, so that snow puffed and twirled and whirled inside it. I cried when she took it home again.
“Mine,” Du said but she didn’t sound convinced.
“I’m your sister?” I said. “Sisters share.”
“I’m Brother’s little sister,” she said around her thumb.
“And my little sister.”
“Only Hen is mine.”
I tried to recall what she’d been like before.
“I’ll show you through,” Jack said. “You want to come, Du?”
She’d been coming already, slipping her hand into Jack’s hand. “My Jacqui.”
I rolled my eyes. Mine. Mine. Mine. Was that all she could say? “I’m your sister whether you like it or not,” I said.
We went through a door in the left corner of the room, into a grey-lit single-file corridor. The left side of the corridor followed the shape of the hull to a narrow floor.
Jack stopped. “Watch my hand? Here’s the light switch.” He flipped it. The corridor became gold-lit. “Did you two ever meet at your house?” he said instead of telling me the light was powered by the sun or some technical fact.
Good thing he was in front, I was so embarrassed. I fizzed hot all over. Of course Du didn’t know me. We’d never met. And she is only five years old, I reminded myself. You thought you owned Hen then. “No windows,” I said to distract myself.
“Portholes in the room we just left, that are covered with the shawls, and portholes in the kitchen up front. This is the bunkroom, where visitors sleep.” He opened a door beside us. Three sets of double bunks crowded the room. A washable rug outlined the place where people would have to take turns dressing. “Seen it?”
I nodded. No windows, I didn’t say. Just like the Tween House.
“I’m not a visitors,” said Du in a confronted tone of voice.
Jack smiled over Du’s head. I might’ve been able to appreciate it if I wasn’t confronted myself. I didn’t smile back.
Jack shrugged. “This is the bathroom,” he said, opening the next door.
Shower basin toilet. A square of washable tiles to stand on.
“Hen’s room,” he said, indicating that door.
“And mine!” Du said.
Jack frowned at me to warn me not to react. “And finally the kitchen and stair to the front hatch. The layout is back to front to most other boats, Hen told me. She hasn’t told me the reason. Maybe you can get that story from her?”
I shrugged. “You seem to know her as well as I do. Ask her in a different way. She likes people to think for themselves.”