The ‘Daisy Dancer’

It was the end of the summer when Daisy finally drove down to Salcombe. It was the day that they had set. They were lucky, in that the heat wave was over and it would be a good sailing day: small clouds slid across a blue sky at a speed that suggested a Force 4 or 5. Nigel Manley had agreed to take her out on the boat back in March, but then there had been a long silence and she hadn’t felt entitled to pursue matters. It was his boat, after all. A fortnight ago he had emailed apologising that he hadn’t got back to her. He’d had an operation; there’d been complications.

Daisy found the boat yard amongst a series of similar businesses on Island Street, and met Manley at the gates. 

‘So: Mr Dancer’s daughter.’ He looked pale and unwell, and his boating jacket hung loosely on him. ‘After how many years?’

‘It…er…it must be twenty or so,’ she said, although she knew exactly: the boat had been launched on her eighth birthday. ‘It’s really kind of you to let me see the boat. I really felt I had to see it again, once I’d tracked it down. I…er…hope I’m not inconveniencing you.’

‘Not at all.’ He led her across the boatyard. A small tender bobbed at the quay.

‘Look, today I’m expecting you to help me sail her. You’re helping me.’ he said, as they puttered out in the tender across the harbour. ‘I’m not up to much these days, and the yacht club’s short of crew; they’re all away on holiday. I haven’t been out for months.’ 

She’d already reassured him that she’d had some sailing experience: a ‘Day Skipper’ course in Chichester Harbour. She didn’t mention the sailing holidays in the Med, with Nick. Nick wanted to own a boat, but she’d always tease him that his fantasy of making love on a sunwarmed deck would give way to a reality of spilt tea, seasickness pills, foul weather gear and woolly hats.

‘Sailing’s a form of masochism,’ she’d told Nick, ‘if you’re into perversions.’

Manley pushed on the tiller and swung the tender through a right angle so that they glided easily past a line of moorings.

‘Well there she is.’ Amongst the GRP gin palaces lay a glossy dark blue hull, with brass portholes embedded in varnished teak and white letters spelling: Naja, Salcombe. Manley drew alongside it, and the ‘Naja’ rocked gently as they clambered aboard. Daisy stood still on the deck, filling her eyes with the spruce mast and spars, the rope rigging, the polished fittings. Everything was immaculate.

‘You’ve looked after it beautifully. It’s just as I remember it.’

‘Not me – the boatyard.’ Manley began a description of the maintenance schedule, but memories ran through Daisy’s mind: Daddy building the wooden hull in the barn. How huge the structure had seemed in those days when she was only a small child. Her mother was always exasperated with her and her brother, always doing housework, picking them up from school, working night shifts, whilst Dad seemingly absented himself from the family, either at his office or in the barn, planing and sawing timber. 

Daisy had launched the boat, her Dad steadying the champagne bottle in her small hand. It was a special birthday party.

‘I name this boat the ‘Daisy Dancer’,’ she’d said, quite loud and clear. It was her boat. It had been the justification for her father’s withdrawal from their household: that he was doing it for her. But eventually he left them for good, and her boat was sold on as part of the divorce settlement.

Nigel Manley started the engine and guided the ‘Naja’ clear of the moorings. Once they were in the open water heading out of the inlet he gave Daisy the helm for a while.

It was incredible to be out on the water, free, surging past the lateral buoys at the harbour entrance to the open sea and the empty horizon. Under Manley’s guidance Daisy hoisted sails and they switched off the engine and tacked across a brisk southerly breeze. Waves lifted the bow one after another, and beneath the surface the water was glassy and bluish green. Seagulls circled their wake. The air was fresh, as if cleaned with salt, and offered no opacity to the sun which dazzled them from above and glittered on the wavelets. Behind them, Salcombe diminished into a grey streak of coastline.

‘I had great difficulty tracking this boat down,’ she told him. ‘It’s had three changes of owner as well as a change of name.’

‘I know the couple I bought it from went bankrupt: the Egans.’ said Manley. ‘What happened to the others?’

‘My parents sold the boat when they divorced,’ she said. ‘I would have been about nine or ten. The man who bought it, Paul Purcell, had a heart attack. His widow sold it to a man called Ray Fitzgerald but he was made redundant and couldn’t afford to keep it.’

‘Definition of a boat: big hole in the sea you pour money into.’ Manley smiled grimly. ‘Seems like no-one had any luck with her. Who changed the name?

‘Purcell, the first buyer – he didn’t want our name on it. But it’s unlucky though, isn’t it, to change a boat’s name?’

‘Well I’ve certainly had no luck. My wife died a couple of years after we bought her. Now I’ve got bowel cancer and no-one to lend me a shoulder to cry on.’

‘Are you…d’you think you’ll keep the boat on?’ To Daisy, in the relentless sunlight he looked frail, almost transparent, the way her mother had looked, the way cancer patients do when they haven’t long to live. Maybe the ‘Naja’ was a burden to him. ‘I might be in a position to buy her.’

She’d looked at the adverts in Practical Boat Owner to see what this type of boat would cost. It would be expensive, paying for the boat as well as the mooring costs, insurance and the complicated maintenance schedule for a wooden-hulled boat. But her father had left her a legacy in his will: investments that he’d worked hard to accumulate and that she hadn’t wanted to sell. This, though, would be a fitting use of his money.

‘She’s all I’ve got. All I have to care about.’ Manley’s frown deepened and he focused down at the controls. ‘Look at this on the echo sounder. It’s the wreck of the ‘Herzogin Cecilie’, an old schooner, a tall ship.’ He adjusted the helm, steering away.

Daisy glanced at the red shapes on the display screen. It was hard to imagine they represented the remains of a proud vessel. Would the ‘Naja’ lie one day beneath the waves? She would never see it again.

‘Well, if ever she gets too much for you, I hope I’ll have first refusal.’

He said neither yes or no, and she left it at that. She didn’t want to be too obvious about the cancer, about his prognosis. That one outing, that one single day, was all that he was prepared to allow.

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It was another twelve years before the phone call came.

‘Miss Dancer? Daisy Dancer?’ A woman’s voice.

‘Yes. Well, Daisy Atkinson, actually. Mrs Daisy Atkinson.’ She smiled. ‘It’s my married name.’

‘Oh.’

‘Who is it?’ mouthed Nick across the breakfast table. She made an ‘I don’t know’ face at him.

‘Er, can I help you?’ she asked the caller.

‘I’m Ellen Malcolm. You won’t know me.’

‘No…’ 

‘You might remember Nigel Manley. He had the boat you were interested in. The ‘Daisy Dancer’?’

‘Oh, yes.’ Daisy’s heart sang at the name. Her expression must have shown it because Nick’s eyes were looking deep into hers, trying to discover what it was that so attracted her.

‘Well I’m very sorry to let you know that he’s…um…died. I’m…I was… his lady friend, as it were.’ Ellen Malcolm paused.

‘Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that. Please. My condolences.’ Daisy blethered on awkwardly. ‘You must be so…er…I didn’t know he had a lady friend. He was, er, widowed when I met him.’

‘We were together for eleven years,’ said Ellen. 

‘I’m so sorry,’ repeated Daisy, remembering that Manley had had cancer. ’When did he…er…pass away?’

‘Last month,’ said Ellen. ‘Quite suddenly. He’d named me as his executor in his will. He didn’t have any other family, you see.’

‘So…’ Daisy hardly dared to hope. ‘Are you phoning about the boat? Is the boat for sale?’

’No, no, not for sale.’

‘Oh.’ Daisy’s heart sank again. Perhaps there would be some awful ceremony, a memorial service or something. Burial at sea. ‘So, er, why have you rung?’

‘He left you the ‘Daisy Dancer’ in his will.’

‘Oh …my God. I…er…I don’t know what to say.’ Daisy’s eyes filled up; she put a hand to her cheek. Across the table Nick was frantic with curiosity, gesturing to her to put the phone on the loudspeaker setting. ‘But – hang on, what did you say the boat was called? You mean the ‘Naja’, don’t you?’

‘The ‘Daisy Dancer’. He renamed it just before I met him. He always said it was a lucky name.’

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©chateauxenespagne 2018

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