Meadows of Fantasy



MINE SMITH WAS not a native of Thisbury, but simply worked there, living for the purpose in a flat she shared with two other girls.

"Do they ever read any sf?" asked Owen.

"I'm not even sure that they can read," said Mine. "Though on second thought, they both work as secretaries, so I suppose they must be able to."

"Perhaps they don't care for you, either," suggested Cynthia.

Cynthia Daytime was both the newest and the youngest member of the Thisbury and District Science Fiction Circle, having only recently left school -- not the one that Mine taught at -- as soon as she possibly could after her fifteenth birthday. Once it had sunk in that none of the other members would go out of their way to refer to bicycle-stealing or to avoid referring to it, she settled perfectly happily and naturally into the niche that the rest of the "hard core" had left open for her. She showed as yet no interest in boys as such, but boys who read science fiction didn't count as boys so much as people in their own right, and the four male members of the circle's "hard core" were only too glad to have her around for possible future reference, as well as being able to appreciate her meanwhile at her own current valuation.

At twenty-four, Mine was the oldest member of the "hard core". Dave Portable, at twenty-one the next oldest, was the Circle's chairman and, in fact, sole officer. Bert Duckbarrow, also twenty-one, sometimes seemed to have been placed upon the earth with the specific function of doing nothing else except make puns -- sometimes quite good ones. Owen Mole, a bouncy and irrepressible eighteen, was a useful counterweight to the somewhat more sober-minded Dave. That left Ian Omlet, who at seventeen had never been able to make up his mind as to whether he liked science fiction because it reminded him of modern jazz, or liked modern jazz because it reminded him of science fiction. He was the only member of the Circle with such outrageous musical tastes -- most of the rest of the "hard core" preferred trad in reasonable doses. Ian, though he had outgrown it a couple of years since, disconcertingly appeared to know more about trad and its practitioners than did the rest of them put together. As as result, they seldom discussed music when Ian was present.

The Circle's membership roster was completed by Tom, Dick and Harry -- who virtually formed another little "hard core" of their own. Harry and Tom were middle-aged and long married, and it was difficult to think of Dick as anything but middle-aged too, despite his being in fact only eighteen. He had a middle-aged sort of mind.

"As a matter of fact," said Mine, "I'm not trying to be catty about them -- they're both very nice girls."

"Why don't you chuck them out?" Owen asked. "Then you could install a couple of us instead."

"Install the whole lot of us why not?" Ian suggested.

"Have a sort of harem in reverse, in fact," Owen amplified. "We could hold our meetings there and everything."

"Yeah," said Cynthia. "That's a point, you know. Why don't you have a more central sort of clubroom or something, anyway?"

"And what's wrong with this one?" protested Dave, who lived only five houses away.

"Well," said Mine, "you must admit it's rather far out -- I'm surprised you've managed to collect even this crowd. If we had somewhere more central we might start looking round seriously for increased membership."

"In a word," said Dave, "prices."

"But surely we ought to be able to find something not unreasonable somewhere?"

"The boys know this," said Dave, "but you new girls might as well be told. You know old Jonesy at the bottom of High Street? Jonesy the bookseller? Well, he recently cleared out his attic and offered it to us. But he said he daren't take less than a couple of quid a week for it -- his rates were high enough as it was, and if they found out he was letting it they'd raise his assessment. And there was some Bible Reading Group that was offering him a fiver a session for it. He'd have let us have it for a hell of a lot less than that -- and it's nothing fancy as accommodation goes, either. But it was still way out of our price-range. So the Bible-readers got it."

"Do rich people read Bibles?" Owen wondered.

"Must do," said Mine.

"And in the mean time," Dave finished, "we get this place for seven-and-six a throw."

"But only because you've got Connections," said Owen. To the girls he amplified: "His aunt's the chairman or something."

"They wouldn't let this place at all except to someone with Connections," said Dave. "Seriously, if either of you girls does happen to hear of anything suitable in town going for a pound a week at the outside -- and that's probably overdoing it with our present resources -- we'd be extremely interested to hear of it."


It was the following week.

"My dad's been doing a job down at Sid Black's boatyard," Cynthia told them. "And he says there's a couple of converted barges going at twenty quid apiece. That is, one of them's already been promised to the Sea Scouts. But the other one's still going, last I heard."

"Going where?" asked Bert.

"Going, you know, lying there -- oh, you."

"But what would one of us do with a twenty-pound barge?" somebody asked.

"For a clubroom, stupid."

Light dawned. "Twenty quid," said Dave. "Sounds damned cheap -- but what's the catch?"

"There isn't one. They're sort of towing-barges -- not canal-boats -- getting a bit old, and smaller than they like them nowadays. The hull's being done over to stop them leaking, what happens to the insides will be up to the customer to do what he likes with."

"But where would we put it? And how much would we have to pay to keep it there?"

"We could keep it moored in Galley Meadows. And we wouldn't have to pay a sausage -- it's absolutely free."

"Huh?" Owen exploded. "How come?"

"Dunno. One of those things. Always has been."

Harry spoke up now. "Still," he mused, "Galley Meadows isn't exactly central, either."

"It's more central than this place is though," said Ian. "It's only half a mile out of town instead of three, and more or less on the level instead of right on top of a hill."

"The more I hear of the idea," said Mine, "the better it sounds. If some of you boys could do a bit of handiwork around the place, I could help with curtains and things. There -- you've got me making plans already."

"But twenty pounds," Dave reminded them. "That's more than two pounds apiece from each of us."

"It's easier for some of us than others, of course," put in Tom. "I daresay I could put a fiver or so on the q.t."

"I don't know what the wife'll say," said Harry -- who, though not hen-pecked as was Tom, liked to pretend he was. "But I think I might match that all right."

"I'm not precisely rolling in it of course," Mine offered, "but I could probably manage two or three quid." And almost before they realised it, the entire twenty pounds had been assessed and promised and the way ahead seemed clear.

"Anyway." Dave spoke for them all. "Certainly there can't be any harm looking into it."

So Dave, Mine and Harry were designated as a Committee To Look Into It. This they did promptly at just after five o'clock the following evening, and looked at in close-up the project appeared every bit as encouraging as it had seemed the night before. In fact Harry paid five pounds by way of deposit on the spot, and the boatyard man assured them that the hulk would be ready for moving within a fortnight.

Already it was virtually theirs.

Next arose the question of what to name it. Bert immediately suggested Fan-To-Sea. "Well, we're sf fans," he argued. "And even if we aren't actually going to sea, it's really much the same thing."

Dave somewhat hesitantly suggested Sandwich Lady, wondering how many of them would get the reference. Mine surprised him with enthusiastically seconding it. Then Owen took the floor. He pointed out that (a) that the Circle ought to honour its traditions, (b) that by tradition it held its meetings in Upside Down, (c) that the nautical equivalent of turning upside down was turning turtle, and that therefore (d) the barge should obviously be named the Turtle. Even Bert could find no fault with this chain of reasoning, so the suggestion was promptly put to the vote and carried.

There thus remained only to pay over the balance of the money, and to take possession.


The next Saturday but one turned out fine; and they managed to achieve almost a full muster down at the boatyard. Tom wasn't able to come -- nobody really expected that he would be -- but everybody else had managed to be there bright and early, and Harry had brought his younger son, a twelve-year old answering to the name of George, by way of makeweight.

Everything was ready. All the money had been paid over, and Galley Meadows had been prospected for a suitable mooring. It was now simply a matter of moving the Turtle to her new berth. This, they had decided, could be done with optimum ease and financial convenience by hiring a rowing-boat for the day and towing her themselves. They selected a large boat shipping three pairs of oars, and plenty wide enough to allow for one body to each oar. That left three people over. A couple of them, they thought, ought to travel on the barge, just in case. Dick and George were selected for this. Cynthia seemed the obvious choice for cox, so she was duly stationed in the smaller boat's stern and commissioned specifically to watch where they were going.

The other six would play galley-slave. Places were taken, the tow-rope took the strain, and slowly and majestically the Turtle swanned her way into the boatyard lock and was decanted on to the surface of the River Wray. The nose of the rowing-boat turned upstream.

The voyage had begun.

The Wray follows a meandering course in its extreme lower reaches. Although Galley Meadows lies right on the edge of town, the river doesn't run from there direct to the boatyard but saunters in a wide loop some three or four miles out of its way, via a couple of locks, in order to avoid a stray outcropping of the downs. On a day like this, though, a row of three or four miles should be no hardship. They found, as they'd thought, that once they got a bit of momentum going it was comparatively easy to keep up. Those with the tenderest hands -- which was most of them -- had wisely brought along expendable cheap gloves, which kept them from blistering up straight away, and it seemed no time at all before they were entering the Wray Bridge Lock.

Out of the lock they continued as before, keeping correctly to the right as they went. Presently Cynthia, who had been conducting the performance excellently so far, sang out "Easy on the port oars."

"What does that mean?" asked Owen.

"It means you. No, not you Bert, keep rowing. Dave, Mine, Owen -- slack off, or we'll foul some angler's lines."

Dave, stroking on the port side, obediently did as he was told. Mine, sitting behind him, took not the slightest notice and carried on rowing. Owen, in the bows, hesitated a moment before taking his cue from Mine.

"Mine! Owen!" said Cynthia sharply. "Have some sense. There is such a thing as courtesy on the river."

"I've never noticed anglers showing much courtesy to the fish," said Mine.

Harry, who was sitting next to her, turned his head. "You eat fish, don't you?" he asked.

"Yes -- but not ones caught by sticking hooks in their mouths."

"They'll tell you the fish can't feel it," said Harry.

"They must do," said Owen, backing the girl up. "Stands to reason."

"To prove it," said Harry, "they throw a little one back and it keeps returning to the hook again, time after time, not in the least discouraged."

"If that doesn't make you want to throw up..." Mine tailed off as Dave turned to face her. "Have some sense, Mine, for pete's sake," he argued. "We've got to live with this." Cynthia was practically jumping up and down with impatience, so he dug his oar hard in and pushed it the wrong way, so that it not only retarded that side of the boat but fouled up Mine's oar too. Mine and Owen surrendered to the inevitable, and the boat swung broadside on to the stream. They were almost up among the anglers now, so it was a case of broadside or nothing. Slowly the barge behind them responded to the new angle of pull, and they finished the manoeuvre with the whole equippage straddled broadside across almost the entire width of the stream at that point.

"What's that noise?" someone asked. For a moment everybody stopped rowing to look. And round a bend, going at a good speed, swept a small and powerful motorboat, and trailing behind it...

"Water-skier," said Dave.

"On the river?" Mine protested.

"Isn't there some sort of limit..." suggested Harry.

As soon as the motorboat's driver saw them he throttled sharply, but it was too late to stop in time now. He had a choice between hitting one of the banks, hitting one of the boats, hitting the rope between them, or outting around the barge. He chose the latter, and shot towards the narrow gap between barge and bank and straight in amongst the anglers' lines. Amidst all the shouting between anglers and motorboat, those in the motorboat became suddenly aware that the water-skier had either cast off, or been cast off, and was heading at what looked like an uncomfortably fast clip straight for the gap between the two slower craft.

Cynthia showed astonishing quickness of both thought and action. Making a dive for the tow-rope where it was hitched round the stern seat, she had it unhitched almost quicker than the eye could follow, and literally threw the end overboard. The water-skier slid rapidly but harmlessly between her and the barge, was picked up by his motorboat again, and with the anglers still shouting impotently behind them the motorboat and tow swept on downstream.

"Look back in angler," Bert grinned.

There was a sort of crunching, grating noise, and the crew of the rowing-boat were suddenly made aware that they'd run aground on some foreign body that shouldn't have been there.

"'Ware croc," said Owen.

"Hippo," contributed Ian.

"Hippo, hippo, hippo Wray," amplified Bert.

"How do we get off?" Mine wondered.

"Can't we sort of row off?" suggested Dave.

This proved to be entirely feasible, and with nothing more fearful than a repetition of the crunching grating noise they soon had themselves extricated.

"Look at the barge," said Ian.

"Oh hell," said Mine.

During the short time that it had taken the rowing-boat to clear the obstruction, the barge, under her own momentum and that of the current, had turned her head downstream again -- but down a different stream. It was the weir channel, the weird corresponding to the Wray Bridge Lock being, due to the demands of the local topography, some half-mile upstream from the lock itself. Rapidly the rowing-boat's complement discussed this new development. It seemed that the two aboard the barge were not actually in any danger, because the Turtle drew too much water to go over the weir. The rowing-boat, if it went that way, might go over, but everybody said they could swim, so Cynthia gave the necessary directions and the rowing-boat, with nothing to retard its progress, positively zoomed into the weir channel and in a trice had overtaken the barge. Cynthia examined the latter's bows in perplexity.

"Where's the rope?" she asked young George, who stood on the barge's deck looking down at them.

"I cut it," George explained. "When that skier." He held aloft a fearsome school-boy type jackknife.

This was clearly too much. One quick-thinking-quick-acting person on the job was very much to the point, but two of them was evidently something else again. "Take to the boats!" Cynthia wailed.

As it happened, the answer was simple -- break out another rope. They had brought several, to have plenty with which to moor the Turtle to the bank when -- if ever -- they arrived. So with the two boats restored to their rightful positions relative to the current and to one another, the expedition nosed out of the weir channel and again safe and sound to resume its interrupted course.

For a time all was plain sailing -- or rowing. Eventually the party became aware of another noise -- a different sort of noise this time, and coming from the opposite direction. There seemed to be involved a combined rhythmic shouting and banging. No, not a jazz band -- nothing like that at all. It was hard to tell what it was. They asked Dick, on the barge, to report.

"I think it's the Sea Scouts," he told them. "They're doing the same as we're doing."

Doing it considerably faster, too, it transpired. It was indeed the Sea Scouts. Instead of having one six-oared boat to provide the motive power, they had a quartet of four-oared ones, travelling two abreast each with its own separate tow-rope husky-dog style. A couple of spare boys adeck held long poles, ready for fending off anything that might need fending off. Also on deck was a youngish man -- the scoutmaster, one presumed -- with a megaphone which he alternately raised and lowered as the mood took him. "In! Out! In! Out! Port -- port! Steaaaaady -- In! Out! Now starboard!" He howled the words through the megaphone in a high, sharp voice. Beside him stood a little sea scout with a side-drum, upon which he constantly drummed out the tempo -- Brrrr, rrrrr, Brrrr, rrrrr, Brrrr, rrrrr. Crisply the scoutmaster gave his directions as they swung out to overtake the Turtle. The Turtle's rowing-boat lost way as several of its rowers caught crabs through lack of attention to the business at hand.

The scoutmaster turned to face them, and his megaphone came up smartly. "Having a spot of trouble, chaps?" he bawled. Cynthia turned a pretty nose at him.

"What sort of 'chap' does he take me for?" demanded Mine indignantly of her fellow-crewmen as they rocked in the Sea Scouts' wake.

"Man," said Ian expansively. "Just dig that utterly depressing rhythm section."

The sound of the Sea Scouts on the march gradually grew less as they forged ahead.

"I don't know," said Owen. "Their way may be more efficient. But ours is certainly more interesting." This, for no obvious reason, broke them up with laughing.

"I wonder how they'd have coped with the water-skier though," said Mine when she'd recovered sufficiently.

"Probably court-martialled him at the drumhead on the spot," suggested Dave. "And then gone back for a yard-arm to hang him from."

And so in due course they came to the upper lock. They had promised themselves a mealbreak there, so they approached it in good spirits. Before they had got up to it, though, it had become evident that all was not in order. Considerable shouting seemed to be going on, the scoutmaster being a leading participant. They couldn't at first see what was happening, as the lock was at a high level. By common accord they pulled into the bank, and Cynthia skipped lightly out and ran up to see what was what. They saw a delighted smile spread over her face, and she beckoned them. Ian tied the painter to a post, and they all scrambled ashore and went to have a look.

What they found caused them no little amusement. The Sea Scouts' barge had somehow got jammed across the lock at high level, each end of it stuck firmly into the fabric of the wall. The boys, at their master's frantic direction, were trying to rock the boat free. "One -- two -- three!" the scoutmaster was howling into the inevitable megaphone. "One -- two -- three! Keep it up, lads -- one -- two -- three! One -- two -- three!" And so on. Another man, who seemed to be the lock-keeper, was shouting at him to stop -- entirely unavailingly. Several more bystanders stood quietly round, watching with considerable interest.

"Portage, anyone?" asked Owen facetiously.

"What's that mean?" asked Ian.

"Portage, you know -- carry it round by hand."

"Are you kidding?"

:"Frankly, yes."

Dave stepped forward, taking advantage of a temporary lull in operations. "Anything we can do to help?" he asked the scoutmaster.

The latter was desperate enough to stop to consider this. "I think we have sufficient hands, thanks all the same," he decided.

"Afraid he'd have to pay us salvage," said Owen.

Dave pondered. He turned to the apparent lock-keeper, and asked him if this was indeed so.

"Yes," said that worthy. "That is, I'm his relief. Lock-keeper's on holiday. Boating on the Grand Union Canal if you please. This would have to go and happen while I'm in charge here."

This was encouraging, if anything. "I've been thinking," said Dave. "I don't know much about this sort of thing -- but might it help to let a little of the water out?"

The relief lock-keeper looked as if he was going to indignantly reject the idea -- and then suddenly seemed to change his mind. "Yes," he agreed. "It might. It well might." And without more ado he walked over to the lock gate and began operating the sluice. There was a perceptible change in the overall sound, and the scoutmaster turned to see what was happening, megaphone at the ready. "Hi! You!" he bawled. "Stop that!" The boys had stopped rocking, and were watching the water level -- which was perceptively receding from the level of the deck.

"Do you hear me? Stop it this instant!"

All of a sudden the barge gave a lurch, and one end fell away, followed promptly by the other. The scoutmaster danced a ludicrous hornpipe trying to keep his balance -- he kept it, but at the expense of his megaphone, which fell overboard and promptly sank. That would be no loss, at any rate. Then the barge was floating free again, clear of the lock walls. The relief lock-keeper shut the sluice off, and within ten minutes the Sea Scouts, order of battle restored except for the thrice-blessed loss of the megaphone -- the relief lock-keeper absolutely refused to let one of the boys dive for it -- were once more on their all-conquering way.

The Thisbury Circle brought their boats through the lock, and then stopped for a leisurely and much-needed meal. It was mid-afternoon before they felt like resuming their journey. There wasn't far to go now, though. The six oarsmen pulled with a will, and the expedition soon debouched into the open water of Galley Meadows.

Galley Meadows -- its name was said by some to hark back to the Vikings, though others doubted that on the not unreasonable grounds that the locks hadn't been there in the Viking days -- had at one time been a sort of swamp lying between Thisbury and the river. Eventually someone had got round to sorting it out, which had been accomplished by in effect putting all the land on the one side of it and all the water on the other. This meant that the river at that point took on the appearance of a lake, and was flanked on the town side by a considerable area of ground that was too uncertain for building on but entirely adequate for recreational purposes. And it was here that the moorings lay. There were several craft moored there more or less permanently -- houseboats and the like. And...

"Oh, look," said Owen. "The Sea Scouts have pinched our spot."

They had. On the other hand, as it was entirely unmarked, obviously the Sea Scouts were perfectly entitled to it if they got there first -- which they had done. "Never mind," said Dave. "There's plenty of room for all. Let's scout around."

"Let's round a scout," amended Bert. Not one of his better efforts, obviously -- nobody laughed.

They tied the Turtle to the nearest available spot, and rowed over to the reconnoitre. "Don't look now," Mine suddenly murmured, "but I think they're in trouble again." With one accord the rowers turned the boat's head and scudded across to where the Sea Scouts' barge lay. A boatload of Sea Scouts moved to intercept them.

"What's up?" asked Dave.

One of the boys grinned. "A little matter of nobody having brought a gangway along," he informed them. "Skipper's doing his nut."

"Take me to your -- er -- skipper," said Dave.

Dave's idea was simple enough, and met with general approval. They had a plank, and if the Turtle could be moored for the present on the outward side of the other barge, the one plank would suffice for both vessels. Furthermore, Dave was thinking ahead, and the "skipper" was persuaded to stop doing his nut long enough to be introduced to the Circle at large. If the two barges could be kept permanently in the same general vicinity, Dave suggested, both groups could keep a friendly eye open for each other's interests.

"So long," Mine qualified as they rowed back to fetch the Turtle, "as he doesn't get another megaphone."

"If he does," said Ian, "I'll get a saxophone."

"If you do," countered Owen, "that's going overboard too."

Having left the Turtle moored securely to the scout barge, and surreptitiously checked that that was moored securely to the bank, they all piled in the rowing-boat and returned downstream. It was easy rowing with the current, and they stowed one pair of oars and all took turns to row with the remaining two pairs. Even Dick -- no child of the great outdoors at the best of times -- took a turn.

At one point, Dave found himself sitting in the stern next to Harry's son George. He turned to him. "Well," he said conversationally. "Now you've met us, how d'you like us? Want to become a member?"

The boy considered for a moment.

"No thanks," he answered seriously. "I think I'd like to join the Sea Scouts."

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