After two weeks of constant grey drizzle the skies had finally lifted yesterday evening. “Shall we picnic by the river tomorrow?” Leo asked Helen over hot cocoa on the deck just before turning in for the night.
“You may; but I’m booked at Guy’s tomorrow. Morgan Greaves is trying out a new technique and wants a few drawings of the occasion.”
Unspoken between them was the memory of the last time Helen had drawn for this particular consultant: the day after Leo’s night with Joe. She had left the boat that morning anxious but nonetheless still hoping; she had returned in the evening to an empty boat, her most pessimistic expectations fulfilled. Yet, in defiance of what Helen had thought inevitable, Leo had returned two weeks later: leaner, fitter, browner, having spent the intervening time rock climbing. This would be the first time they’d be on the river together since Leo had returned from the Lake District.
“Sunday then,” said Leo; and without fanfare the expedition was agreed.
They paddled the canoe upstream, finding that place where they had idled another Sunday, before Elsie’s sudden arrival had disrupted the even tenor of their lives. Helen rested the picnic basket on a cloth she stretched over the large flat rock, while Leo got out writing and sketch pads, laying them out for later use, before she scanned the other side of the river with her binoculars. No kingfisher this time; and no hunting cat either, which was just as well for the blue tits twittering as they searched for insects. A brief grin lightened her jaw as she spotted one particularly acrobatic youngster hanging upside down from a small branch of the oak tree opposite.
“Fancy a swim before we eat?”
Leo looked round to see Helen had already discarded blouse and skirt and was pulling her hair back, tying it with a black ribbon to keep it out of her way.
“I didn’t think to bring a costume,” Leo admitted.
Helen shrugged, but said nothing, simply unfastening the straps of her sandals, before she slipped into the water, and headed for the riverbank opposite. Leo’s binoculars trained themselves on her figure, elegant as she turned onto her side half way across, her right arm graceful as it stretched beyond her head in a lazy stroke. The gentle splash of her sidestroke as she reached the other bank startled a weasel back into its burrow beneath the roots of the oak tree, before Helen turned back.
It was too tempting to resist. Clothes shucked to one side, Leo, too, slid into the water. Her more vigorous stroke took her swiftly to the centre of the river to meet her friend. Laughing, they played at ducking one another, before making their way back to the left bank, hastily rubbing the worst of the water from each other, the picnic cloth doing double duty before being replaced on the rock. Leo shrugged on her shirt and trousers, eschewing undergarments.
The picnic basket disgorged potted meat sandwiches, fruit, lemonade, and thick slices of lemon drizzle cake, satisfying appetites made healthy by the swim. Leo and Helen talked much about nothing as they steadily demolished the feast. Perhaps that was why Leo’s mind kept turning back to the last time Leo had been swimming: with Joe, at night - that night. But this was daytime, and quite different. Yet....
“I quite liked your father.” Helen’s voice interrupted Leo’s musing. She looked round at her friend, startled.
“Father? However did you meet him?”
“He turned up unannounced a few days after you left on your field trip,” explained Helen. “Chocolate?”
She held out a large bar of Caley’s Marching Chocolate. Leo’s face lit at the sight; she broke off four squares before returning the rest to Helen to pop back into the hamper.
“What did Father want?”
“I’m not really sure,” Helen answered. “He seemed at a bit of a loss finding me rather than you.”
There was a long pause while she rooted in a bag for cigarettes and a lighter, again handing them to Leo, who looked at them quizzically, before handing them back with a slight shake of her head.
“He rather liked my drawing of you. You know the one; I did it last time we picnicked here.”
“The nude? He wasn’t shocked? ”
“He liked my technical drawings too. We had a good long chat about the difficulty in establishing oneself as an artist.”
There was another long pause before Leo responded, “You seem to have liked him.”
“I love you; and I could see so much of you in him – greyer, and somehow tired: a bird whose wings had been so closely clipped all those years ago, that even though the feathers had long since grown back, he had forgotten how to fly properly.”
Leo’s deep breath, held for several seconds before she exhaled, was the only outward sign of her emotion, before Helen’s arms closed round her comfortingly, cuddling her until she gave in to the moment and tears slipped slowly down her face. Presently Helen pulled a large man’s pocket handkerchief from her skirt, used it to wipe Leo's cheeks, and held it to Leo’s nose.
“Blow!” she commanded lightly, following this action with an equally gentle kiss.
She was met with passion, insistent, sudden, demanding. No clipped bird this, no budgerigar happy in its cage, complacent and contented in the knowledge its hungers would be routinely satisfied through regular feeding. Leo was a golden eagle soaring the heights; Helen her chosen mate. In the dapple of sunshine and shadow cast by the thick overhead canopy, love affirmed itself.
After some time, Leo sat up, staring pensively at nothing in particular. After a keen glance, Helen busied herself packing way the picnic, loading the basket into the canoe, before she returned to sit beside her friend.
“It’s lost its charm, hasn’t it? The river, I mean,” Helen explained.
Leo shrugged and looked away again. “We’re losing the summer now; I’m never as fond of its winter moods.”
“Really? You were so excited the winter we moved here.”
There was uncharacteristic tartness to Helen's tone, which dragged Leo’s attention back from her thoughts.
“I was thinking about Father visiting you. He always could have before, you know; he just never did – never cared to know that I was with you here, suspended between earth, sea, and sky, and thus invisible. We don’t have that security now.”
“We don’t need it,” retorted Helen. “And I, for one, don’t yearn for it.”
“Not for you ‘the land of lost content’?” Leo smiled.
“I think we have outgrown this place; and I rather yearn for the bright lights again. Besides, it is a little far from the hospital. It would be easier if we had a flat in London; and with your novels selling so well now, we could afford to move back.”
Leo’s eyebrows raised in query, answered by Helen’s steady gaze. So simply was their resolve sealed.
The next week, when Peter dropped by the houseboat, intending to invite Leo to a show, he was surprised to find it deserted. It was, of course, unsuitable as anything but a summer residence; he applauded the women’s decision to move. But he was surprised they had not forwarded him their new address. Perhaps they had not been worthy recipients of his efforts to improve, after all. All in all, he thought not (though he was disappointed; he took comfort in the knowledge it was not often his judgement proved faulty), but took it philosophically. He had tried.