Eric stopped to wipe his sweating brow with a red polka-dot handkerchief, before renewing his grip on the long pole and pushing the punt along again.
He was seventy-three years old and slightly overweight. The poling was very hard work and Eric was looking forward to reaching the end of the journey.
Mavis, his wife of fifty-two years, reclined in the double love seat of the boat and looked around at the countryside as they made their placid way along the gently-flowing water. She was also a touch overweight, and her face was filled with wrinkles. Her collar-length hair was thick and a delightful shade of silver-grey. It was their private joke that he wanted to steal it to make a wig as he had gone bald in his early fifties.
She adjusted the wide-brimmed hat she wore to protect her from the hot summer sun and took in the splendour of the trees and flowers that grew along the banks of the river.
Weeping Willows dipped their long branches into the water, thirsty giants drinking their fill. A small patch of reeds jostled with movement and an otter slid gracefully under the surface. Water lilies with their large pads spread out like sun worshippers basking in the heat.
Mavis loved flowers and she enjoyed the riotous display of colour from the crocuses and daffodils, amongst others that she couldn't identify, that filled the gaps between the trees.
She could smell their delicate perfume as it wafted over the river in the gentle breeze.
Mavis had never been happier than she was right now, travelling through this wonderful countryside with the man she loved so much.
The current of the river increased slightly and Eric found that he no longer needed to help it along, so he placed the pole along the side of the boat on the hooks provided and sank down gratefully next to his wife.
He wiped his forehead again and said, "Phew! I'm glad the current's picked up a bit; I was getting tired," he grinned somewhat sadly, "I'm getting too old for this sort of thing."
Mavis returned the grin ruefully, "I don't think that'll be a problem for much longer."
Suddenly a little morose, Eric's grin faded and he responded slowly, "No, I suppose you're right. Still, I'm glad of a rest."
He wrapped his arm around Mavis' shoulder and she snuggled into him.
The punt slid effortlessly forward and Eric started to daydream, remembering how he had met Mavis as though it was yesterday.
The young man had just moved to the industrial town in search of work. He walked into the local shop, saw a lovely young woman behind the counter and was thunderstruck. She had jet black hair that came down to her collar in a bob, her eyes were a lustrous brown and her milky complexion almost took his breath away. High cheekbones and soft, red lips nestled beneath a delightful button nose. Even with the shapeless and decidedly unfeminine overall she wore, he could see that she had a lithe, slim figure.
As he stood staring, her brow winkled slightly as she asked, "Can I help you?"
Her husky voice was music to his ears. He shook himself slightly, embarrassed as he said, "I'm sorry, erm ... could I have a local paper please and a packet of mints?"
She handed them across to him and has he reached to accept them, their hands touched briefly. The feel of her cool fingers sent a spasm up his arm. Mavis grinned playfully at his obvious discomfort, "You're new around here, aren't you?"
"Yes, I came here looking for work."
"Well the pickle factory's always hiring. If you can stand the smell, the money's quite good."
"Oh, right. Thanks."
Mavis regarded the young man in front of her. He was about medium height and had broad shoulders that gave him a box-like appearance. Not handsome as such, but his face had an open honesty about it that appealed to her.
She thrust out her hand, "Seeing as we're going to be neighbours, my name's Mavis."
He took her cool fingers in his hand and once again a tremor ran up his arm, "Eric," he replied.
"Pleased to meet you, Eric," she smiled.
That was the start of their morning routine. Eric gained employment at the pickle factory and every morning he would stop off at the shop to buy his usual newspaper and mints, and to spend time chatting with Mavis. He was by nature quite a shy, young man and had never been what you might call a Jack-the-Lad, but she was so easy to talk to that he always looked forward to their little interludes.
It was some days later; Eric was walking home from the pub after a few beers with the lads from work and was just passing the old graveyard when he heard voices coming from the darkness.
"No Jimmy, please. You mustn't."
Eric frowned. He knew that voice -- it was Mavis. He knew that the graveyard was the favoured meeting place for young lovers to find privacy, but Mavis hadn't sounded like she was enjoying herself. Peering into the darkness, Eric tilted his head to listen and heard the voice again, this time sounding more alarmed, "Jimmy, please! Stop!"
Carefully, Eric entered the graveyard through the slightly open wrought iron gates and crept toward the place from where he had heard Mavis. He looked around a large gravestone and saw Mavis pressed against the wall of a mausoleum, she was pinned in place by a young man Eric had seen here and there in the local area. Her skirt was bunched around her waist and the man was rubbing roughly between her thighs with his face pressed against the side of her neck.
Eric watched as Mavis tried to push the man away by his shoulders as she sobbed,
"Jimmy, please stop ... Please!"
A red mist descended and Eric stormed across the small patch of grass that separated him from the couple. He grabbed Jimmy by his collar and pulled back roughly.
Jimmy stumbled backwards with a shriek of surprise and landed on his backside on the grass. He looked up in shock and anger at the intruder, "Who the hell are you?"
"I'm the bloke that's telling you to piss off before he kicks your head in!"
Incensed, Jimmy scrambled to his feet and squared up to Eric, just as a hard fist slammed into his face with a satisfying thud and deposited him back on the ground. He shook his head and placed a hand carefully to his mouth. Jimmy could feel a growing wetness on his throbbing lip and it hurt. He looked back up at Eric, who was shaking with rage. This wasn't Jimmy's scene; he preferred to act tough with those who were weaker, not someone who was both willing and able to fight back. Once again Jimmy scrambled to his feet, being careful to remain out of range and hissed, "You're welcome to her," glancing over at Mavis who was still crying as he spat, "Slut!"
With a roar, Eric stormed forward, fists at the ready and Jimmy ran back towards the gate and away.
Once Eric was certain that Jimmy had indeed gone, he turned back toward Mavis. Placing a gentle hand on her shoulder, he quietly asked, "Are you okay?"
Mavis' only answer was to throw her arms around him and bawl into his shoulder. Unsure of what to do, Eric carefully enfolded her in his arms and rubbed the back of her head soothingly. As they continued to embrace, Mavis began to calm down. She pulled away slightly so that she could look him in the face, blinked back her tears and whispered, "Thank you."
Somewhat discomfited, he replied bashfully, "Oh, anyone would have done the same."
"Perhaps, but you did ... Thank you."
Unsure of what to say and ill at ease with her gratitude, Eric could only murmur, "Come on, I'll walk you home."
As they walked home, they talked. Eric wanted to know why a lovely girl like Mavis had been with a scumbag like Jimmy.
"He was charming, in a rough sort of way," she replied, "I mean, I knew he had a bit of a reputation, but I thought I could handle him. I told him I didn't want to ... You know ... Until I was married and he said that was okay. We were only in the graveyard for a snog, but he started going too far and I got scared ... Especially when he wouldn't stop," Mavis teared up again, "I don't know what would have happened if you hadn't been there."
Eric stopped to look at her. Carefully he wiped away her tears with his fingertips and said, "But I did, so that's okay then."
They arrived back at the shop where Mavis lived in the little flat above and she searched her bag for her keys. She opened the door, then turned back to Eric and gave him a peck on the cheek. The feel of her velvet lips and the aroma of her perfume intoxicated and emboldened him to ask, "Mavis ... Would you ... Would you like to go to the pictures with me tomorrow?"
She smiled warmly, "Why, yes. I'd love to."
The sun was just reaching the western horizon when a small building hove into view. The punt veered towards a small wooden jetty of its own accord and bumped gently into one of the supporting posts with a soft thud. The old couple clambered out of the boat and after Eric tied the punt to the post, made their way to the front door of the building.
The door opened into a small, dimly-lit room which was illuminated only by a large candle in a tall glass set in the middle of a dining table set for two. Eric stood behind Mavis' chair and helped her to sit before taking his place opposite her.
Ghostly hands appeared and served the first course. It was a light vegetable consommé. A bottle of wine floated through the air and poured a healthy measure of amber fluid into each of their glasses before floating away back into the shadows.
Mavis looked around her, "Well, they think of everything."
.... There is more of this story ...