The Mime and the Houseboat

Photo by Rennie Ellis
Photo by Rennie Ellis

The story was that she came up from the south by way of the river on Octavio’s ramshackle houseboat in 1995. He’d been on one of his trips, fishing and trading and so on. I was gone then, working in Leeds, but two years later I came back and eventually met her. She was barely forty, I guessed (to his fifty). She was winsome and lively; Octavio would have it no other way. But she didn’t keep him in her sights. He soon went missing, she said, but seemed less worried than irritated and not much of that. The neighborhood knew he was on another jaunt, maybe gambling or fishing, this time took off on motorcycle, an old Indian Arrow he kept at Artie’s garage.

The women felt sorry for the Lady from France–her real name wasn’t known. She had remnants of a musical French accent and didn’t deny it. Soon it was just Lady, as she had a sterling if lightly tarnished manner. Anyway, they offered her plenty of unsolicited advice and she’d look sad for a day. Other times, their words were met with a delicate shrug. But the men, well, we thought she must have known what she was getting into or had other reasons for floating around with him. Octavio had his good points but sticking around wasn’t one of them. He’d never lived with anyone as far as we knew. Not that we thought it was okay to leave this woman alone, being new to the docks. So we all kept a look-out for her. Or him, however you saw it.

Whenever he was gone, which was as frequently as ever, Lady kept up appearances. She fixed up his well-weathered houseboat. She planted pansies and daisies in rough hewn flower boxes that she hammered together herself. Painted the window trim yellow and the door blue with leftovers from two paint cans. She was often seen sweeping and airing things out, and I’m sure they needed it as Octavio was not a tidy man at heart except if he chose to clean himself up. Then he excelled; the rest of us couldn’t help wonder how he did it, that transformation from river rat to debonair man.

When Octavio came back, he rode right past the houseboat at first, then circled back, sat on his rattling motorcycle. Just stared as Lady peeked out of a window. Finally, he gave it rave reviews, threw a small party on board so we could all appreciate her work. You could see he thought Lady was something good, even special. In fact, who could miss it? Everyone watched out for her, though she didn’t seem fragile. Or lacking in street smarts. She just had a peculiar decorum that invited protection, even from many of the women.

She wasn’t a talker but her face spoke volumes. I thought she could have been a silent film actress if we could go back in time. Turned out she was a legitimate dancer, then a street mime once upon a time. She didn’t make much of it, just agreed it was an interesting way to make a living and she did well for many years. Off and on.

She laughed when someone asked her to mime something, then just stepped up on the houseboat’s porch hand rail on bare feet. Just leaned against a post with her shoulder and made like a ship’s figurehead, one leg raised high, arms reaching upward. She sure looked like one of those formidable wooden sculptures that seem as if they could quell or do battle with any storm. And she was petite and lithe, not tall or husky. We gasped at what a bold figure she made. I almost grabbed her to keep her from toppling into the river. But she didn’t fall. She was rock steady, didn’t bat an eyelash or wriggle a toe. She hopped down as we clapped.

Lady was easy to be around, seeing to people’s needs, comfortable with men or women, her clear sea-blue eyes focused on the speaker with the encouraging gaze of someone who learned long ago the way to someone’s heart was simply to listen well. I wondered if she understood everything we said; she’d sometimes frown and ask for a definition of a word. I asked her once how long she had been in our country.

“I was born here, in North London, then my mother took me to France in search of her fortune. Many years gone, now back awhile.”

“Did she find it, her fortune?”

“No. She married a mad Frenchman with a small venue. A theatre. She worked for him tirelessly as a designer and seamstress, making costumes. I had talent, too, danced early on. Then at intermissions. Later, starred in many things. And finally, a street mime.”

She was doodling on a scrap as she spoke, as if to avoid looking at me or maybe to focus better. She crumpled it, tossed it aside. I wanted her to keep talking. We were on her covered deck eating oranges as a light rain fell around us. Octavio was at the pub, a newly favored haunt when in town; she never enjoyed it for long, I’d heard, so let him be.

A breeze ruffled her long half-grey hair. When she turned to me, her eyes were like hard glass stones. I started to speak when a smile flashed across her pale face. She shrugged. That seemed her punctuation at the end of everything, just like that old saying, ces’t la vie.

“Octavio is a decent man at heart, Lady. You’re good for him.”

“Eh, he’s good to me. It’s okay, a man who is nice looking and usually kind enough. But it’s this houseboat–I have fallen in love with it.”

And she swept open her hands to include all of it, the structure, the river with its changing traffic and signs of life, the street where many of us lived and worked. I felt her happiness. I thought, she’s no different than anyone, afterall, needs a feeling of security. But it wasn’t likely to last forever, not with Octavio.

Lady jumped up. “I have work, Hugh. Bring bread and cheese sometime. We’ll have lunch.”

We became friends of a sort. She remained guarded. Maybe she liked my face, too, or maybe it was just timing. You know how sometimes things just fall in place–synchronicity, they call it. Was I smitten? Only a quarter true if so, and I’d have denied it if anyone said it. I had been long-married, was in my second year of a lackluster, sometimes miserable, freedom. I was drawn in by her differentness, had an irresitible urge to get to the truth of who she was. I was also bored with my life. I was particular about keeping things in perspective. I was a machinist and knew all about being careful. Exacting, if needed.

On a sunny day, that rare event, she’d say, “The sky is a perfect backdrop to lunch with burgundy wine. See it change from blue to bluer? It’s the lighting, Hugh.”

Or if Octavio was around she’d call out to him: “Octavio, mon amour, come, put your arms around my waist, dance us right out of this bleak world, into the heart of dawn.”

Octavio shook his head, then held her close, breathed into her voluminous hair. He looked good when he was with her and acted better. Very few of us understood why he would ever leave her.

The women sometimes repeated her poetic phrases, mimiced how she spoke, half joking. A couple decided to take dance lessons, as her grace was such that anyone would want to copy it. They invited her out, as she had no children to keep her busy, no tirades offered against Octavio. She spoke a little of her exotic life on stage and street corners but always with reservation. They all said there was a sadness behind her facade of ease. They didn’t believe she loved Octavio but she sincerely cared enough; he gentled a smidgen. We gradually enfolded Lady into the community, pleased with her presence.

The years continued, repetitions of sorrows and joys, wearing on our face and softening our bellies, our fortunes ebbing and flowing. The river rose and churned and stilled, full of its own drama; we watched it as one of our own, with affection and worry. Respect.

I had less time to visit Lady and Octavio over the next five and then long ten years. My health declined with diabetes. She stopped by to see if I needed anything but left after a brief chat. I was kept abreast of things by the street, heard how he was gone farther and more and she had turned inward, less sociable again. Every few months they might float off and return a week later but mostly he took off on his often-repaired Indian Arrow. Some said Octavio had just expected she would tire of him and leave. Hoped so, then he’d be footloose again. But she burrowed, stayed and stayed. Made herself an integral part of his life, our lives. A part of the houseboat, even. Perhaps too much a fixture, they’d heard him grumble at the pub.

The day came that we’d worried over, a couple years after Octavio started to drink too much and created havoc here and there. Much longer a wait than we had expected but he did find her alluring, afterall.

It was late afternoon and I was napping. My cat, Henry, startled and then I was fully awakened by a hard rap at my door. Annoyed, I got up scratching my beard and shuffled over to open it. It was Lady.

She didn’t speak, just placed her hands at her throat and squeezed, thrusting her tongue out, her face turning pink in the dusky light. I reached up to wrench her hands away. She smelled odd, acrid. Smoky. In the distance I could hear a siren.

“Lady, stop! What’s wrong? Are you ill?”

“Octavio! House! Come!”

She grabbed my hand and pulled me, then pointed toward street’s end where the houseboat was anchored. We raced down. Saw fire engine and ambulance pull to a stop. And then she screamed. It was not a sound I’d want to hear again from her. I was certain what it meant. What lay ahead. He was dead. The houseboat was spewing flames like fireworks gone bad.

But Octavio did not die. He had had a heart attack in his boozy panic over his combustible floating house. He got better, collected insurance money due to irreparable damage caused by faulty wiring, and had the remains hauled away. Then left Lady on his Arrow.

She did not recover. Her houseboat was gone, her man had disappeared for good. Her hair went fully white soon after, five years before she turned sixty. She took to the street even though some offered her a bed or couch, usually sleeping on benches, under bushes, wandering the streets. And practicing her rusty art of mime (I never saw her, couldn’t bear it) for a little cash each day, getting hand-outs at restaurant back doors. When we came face-to-face by the river park three months later, she kept staring at my left eye. It’s eyelid was sagging, another sure sign of old age. She looked terrible, her face streaked with grime, her clothing raggedy, filthy. That hair, ruined. She’d taken up smoking, inexplicably. It all made her look forlorn, wrung out.

“You’re getting old,” she stated.

“Yes,” I said. “Inevitable.” I cleared my throat and looked her up and down pointedly. “You’re…well, getting dirty and smelly.”

“Yes,” she said. “Also inevitable.”

“Come home and take a bath.”

She put her hand in mine and we walked slowly to my little place, people staring at us as if we were two demented souls bound for the twilight zone. I smiled down at her, glad to have her close again, and she shrugged. I got her fresh togs from the next door neighbor, who came to help Lady in the bathroom. It took a long time.

Later, Lady and I sat by the fireplace and she warmed her sore feet and legs. Henry jumped into her lap, checked with me by way of a glance, meowed, then made a spot on her lap. She stroked him, murmured something. Her hair broke against the narrow cliff of her shoulders. Tired like all of her. How would she recover? I felt hurt by life’s fickleness, her lostness.

But then she spoke.

“I’ve been often abandoned. But now, bereft. I am not so wonderful! But never have I been so mad and also in utter tatters with you. I vow I will stay clean. Maybe wander at times but not too far… Henry needs my care, see? Ah, Hugh, mon ami, how long trouble can seem, how short our patience with it. But so it is.”

She closed her eyes and reached for my hand.

“Got to cut this gauche hair.”

I said nothing, content. She cleared her throat.

“Hugh?”

“It’s okay.”

“It’s Selene. But really Trudy. Morris. Birth, ugly name.”

“Hmm.”

Lady is often about the streets. I’m not sure what all she does. I do know she takes food to other cats she sees scrounging about. She hasn’t found my place quite as amenable as her doomed houseboat but she returns. People talk, say she’s lost her mind but maybe she’s found it in some essential way. She tries to be pleasant but they’re afraid of her, I suspect.

I am afraid of very little, that’s my strength, and now my broken, beautiful friend is here to keep us–Henry and me–company. Sometimes she’ll mime something for us, odd as that seems but it is a rare and beautiful form of communication, making words seem like noisy foolishness. She is in by dark. She takes her bath before climbing into the pull-out bed, but will sometimes keep me company if I have insomnia. Henry alternates between her feet or head and mine. We have our tea in the morning as we remark on the color of the sky and life of the river. Lady and Hugh, we’re the story now but we’re just getting older, getting by.

 

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