That evening, when I went up to bed, I was astonished to note that the boat and its rower were even larger – closer? – than when I’d seen it in the morning. A chill went through me. What was happening here? Was my fevered brain warping my perception of reality? I stared hard at the picture and could see that the figure in the boat – now standing – was beginning to have recognisable features. I don’t mean I knew him, I mean I could now see a definite nose, a mouth, dark impenetrable eyes.
It was alarming. Surely, I thought, I would have noticed those features before, if they had been so detailed? I went up to bed with some foreboding. My instincts were to take down the painting and throw it on the fire. However, if it was my tortured brain doing the distorting, then destroying the picture would have no effect on my mental state. I decided to get a very good sleep with a soft new pillow.
Perhaps the morning would bring a clearer, fresh mindset. Another Williams’ poem came to mind entitled ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, upon which everything at that precise moment in time depended as it stood there shining with the morning dew.
Respite was not to be had in the morning. The boat was now halfway across the estuary, the black figure now bold, its grey, gaunt face grim with purpose. It seemed to stare at me with a particular possessiveness that gave me cause to feel a terror I had never experienced before. I hastily put on my outdoor clothes, boots and hat, and went hurrying to the river’s edge. I stood in the dank marsh grasses and whimpered as I looked out upon the waters.
There it was, the same craft, the same boatman, both in the same position as their copies in the painting. There was a determination in the stance of that figure with the oar in its fists. The worst of it was, I thought I now knew who he was.
It was Charon, the ferryman who carried dead souls across the River Styx. Was it him? If it was and if I was the one he was after, then I decided I would not visit this place again. If I were not here, he could not have my soul, surely? What I would do, I decided firmly, was leave the cottage and go back to London. This was a figment of my imagination and I would have no part of it. It was loneliness, heartache and solitude that was to blame for my current delusions.
I knew what had caused it too: reading that damn book on Ancient Greek mythology. I was ever too influenced by stuff like that, especially with my ability, or perhaps it was my affliction, to be able to sense things outside non-physical forces.
When I got back to that lonely, lonely cottage, I actually collapsed inside. What was the point of living, if this was life? This ugly empty existence without Julia. Perhaps tomorrow I would go down to the river and accept what happened to me. If it was all in my head, then nothing would occur. If it wasn’t, then perhaps the best thing for me would be to go with that hooded creature in his boat, over the water. Hades, the Underworld, could not be worse than this. At least there would be others there, amongst whom I could mingle, become part of. They probably wouldn’t be the best of companions, but they would be company none-the-less.
I would no longer be alone.
My mobile rang.
It was Julia.
‘John? Where are you?’
She sounded agitated and upset.
I was shocked to hear her voice, the voice I had not heard for over a year. For a moment I couldn’t answer. My heart was thumping against my ribs.
‘John? That is John Callaway? Are you there? For fuck’s sake, answer. I know you hate me now, for what I’ve done, but I need your help. John?’
‘I – I’m here, Julia. Not angry. Not at all. Just a bit startled to hear your voice. What is it? Of course, I’ll help if I can. There’s no malice . . .’
It seemed to me that she was hardly listening, because she blurted out a story about being thrown onto the street out by her current partner. She had only the clothes she stood up in. Could she come round to my flat and talk. She had made a dreadful mistake. The man she had been living with was a bastard, a fucking bastard, who wanted everything and gave nothing. Could she come to my flat?
‘I won’t stay long, if you don’t want me to. I just need to get my mind settled. You know how unsettled I get sometimes. You always understood that. I loved you for that, John. Just a while. A drink, maybe? You were always a good listener, too. I admired that in you . . .’
‘Julia, I’m not in London. I’m in the wilds of Suffolk.’
There was silence for a while, then, ‘Where? Where is it?’
I told her, but then I said, ‘Look, I’ll come back to London. I don’t have a flat there anymore, but we can go to a hotel or something. Not for anything but a talk, of course,’ I added hastily, thinking that the word ‘hotel’ might imply that I wanted physical intimacy.
‘No,’ she said, firmly. ‘I’ve got to get away from here. He’ll come after me, when he calms down. He always does. He has these wild tempers . . . I’ve had enough, really enough this time. If I come out there to you, he’ll never be able find me.’ There was a that’ll teach him implied in the tone. ‘Yes, that’s the best thing. Don’t worry, I’ve got money.
‘I take the train to Woodbridge, don’t I. Then what do I say to the cab driver? How do I get to your cottage? Oh, it sounds idyllic John. Really. I think I could get my mind settled out there in the countryside. Is it a beautiful cottage, John? Oh, how I’ve missed your calmness, your common sense . . .’
Missing my ‘common sense’ didn’t exactly thrill me with its implications regarding my character and personality. Is that how she saw me? A stolid, sensible, no nonsense fellow. Not exciting really, but reliable and a good shoulder.
Nevertheless, I gave her instructions on how to get to me and ended the call. I was having mixed emotions. Elated, definitely, but also worried that another can of worms had been opened and I was bound to be hurt again. Actually, I really didn’t care. My prayers had been answered. Julia was coming back to me. Perhaps just for the night, but hopefully for good. Maybe she had learned that a stable relationship was better than running around loose, no matter what excitement it generated.
I forgot all about Charon and his nasty little craft.
When Julia arrived, she didn’t stop talking for at least two hours. She rattled on, first about ‘the bastard’ with whom she had lived for two months, then I learned he was about third in the line of lovers A. M. (After Me). I didn’t care. She was here, with me. I hardly listened to the meaning behind the flow of words, I simply let it all wash over me. It was just so wonderful to hear her voice again, to see her animated face, to smell her hair, to touch her ever so casually when I helped her take her coat off, even to taste her just a little when I kissed her hello.
Julia, my lovely Julia, here with me by my side again. What good fortune was on my head, in my hands, to have and to hold. This was my beloved. We were meant to be together. It was meant to be. God had meant it to be. Humanity had meant it to be. Nature had meant it to be. The Universe had meant it to be. It was meant to be, to be, to be. This imperfect mantra went round and round in my head, until I felt dizzy with joy.
‘Let’s go to bed,’ she said suddenly, stubbing her cigarette out. ‘I need you to make love with me.’
And so to bed.
We made love, she like a tigress, me like John Callaway.
In the middle of the night I got up and went downstairs to make myself a cup of coffee laced with brandy. I was too giddy with whirling thoughts to sleep. Once I had the coffee in my hand I stood by the embers of fire, accepting the last warmth it had to offer. Then I made the mistake of looking up. There he was, his face hard, the lips tight, the eyes terrible. Charon. He was almost at the near bank. I stepped back away from him, even though he wasn’t moving, was only watercolour paint on paper.
Was I still hallucinating? Were my perceptions still distorted, even though she had come back to me? Perhaps this strange episode was actually happening? Well, if it was and he was determined to get me, I was equally determined he wouldn’t. To get me on board, I had to go down to the riverside, which I had no intention of doing.
‘You’re a fool,’ I said, laughing. ‘I can’t take you seriously. You can’t hurt me. There’s no way I’m going to let you. I’m here and you’re out there, stuck on the river with no soul in sight. Go home to the other side, to Hades, or whatever you call it. You’ve come on a wasted journey. Yesterday I might have let you take me. Yesterday I wanted to die. Today I’ve got something to live for and I’m not going anywhere.’
The eyes in the picture burned into mine with a hate I had never thought possible of any creature. During my short time in the cottage we had become enemies. Bitter enemies. I could see by those eyes that Charon didn’t just want my soul, he wanted to destroy me. If he got me in that boat, I would be at his mercy, to do with as he wished. Some dead souls might be delivered to the right destination, but what if there were another journey’s end for those he had taken against?
I knew from my reading of Greek myths that the gods were nasty, vicious, vindictive creatures when they wanted to be. Look what Poseidon did to Odysseus! Sent him through years of hell before letting him go home. Or what Athena did to Arachne for challenging her to a weaving match! Turned her into a spider. The Greek gods were not pleasant creatures and Charon was one of their number. A minor god, yes, but in his craft he was omniscient and had full control of his passengers.
I went back to my bed full of foreboding for my safety.
I must have fallen asleep because I woke with the sun on my face. I reached round for Julia and found her side of the bed empty. Putting on my old flannel dressing gown, I went downstairs to find a note on the kitchen table.
‘Gone for a walk. Jx’
Gone for a walk, where? I looked through the front window. She was nowhere in sight and must have slipped into the woods. At that moment I just hoped she’d stick to the paths, because it was easy to get lost in there. Turning to leave the room to get dressed I found myself face to face with the painting. My heart missed a beat and I gagged with fear. Charon was on his way back over the river, into the dense autumn mists that covered the waters. There were now two figures in his boat.
Julia’s ragged soul stood staring back at her limp body lying on the bank as the craft was lurching into the currents, towards a thick wall of fog.
Charon’s eyes were bright. He was grinning at me.