The Skipper’s Art by Valerie Poore
A tall, lean man stood on the deck of the barge, leaning against the wheelhouse doorframe. He held a small sketchpad in his left hand and was drawing in a leisurely fashion, making slow strokes across the page. Every now and then, his eyes would lift and he'd squint across to the heron standing stock still on the opposite bank of the harbour.
The door behind him opened and a teenage boy stepped out, his face alight with excitement, his breath coming in rasps.
"Ah, Arie, you're back. What's the news? I can see something's got you bubbling."
"Yes, Papa, I've had a letter. From Dmitri. Do you remember him?" It all came out in a rush.
"Remember? How could I forget that lad?" Hendrik Kornet replies, his eyes crinkling with his ready smile. "So you've heard from him after all these years? Well, well, at least now you know he's alive. What does he have to say? And where is he?"
"He's in East Germany, Papa, not far from the border. He's actually wondering if we can hep him again."
Hendrik threw back his head and laughed.
"Why am I not surprised? Well, I'm all ears to know how he thinks we can do that. If he's in the East, I can't imagine how we can help him from here."
Hendrik put his sketchbook down with a hint of regret. He was enjoying this new hobby. Ever since Arie left school a few months ago, he'd been working with Hendrik on the Rival, the family’s barge, full-time, learning to be a real skipper instead of just helping out during the holidays. Having another helmsman on board gave Hendrik time to relax a little. He'd always enjoyed drawing, but for years now, he'd been too busy to pick up his pencils. Now he took any opportunity to practise; after all, their travelling lifestyle gave him plenty of different subjects.
Arie glanced at the heron whose wings Hendrik had almost finished shading in.
"That's beautiful," he said. "Have you shown Mama? She'll love it."
"Not yet, son. But tell me. What did young Dmitri have to say? What is he now? Twenty-one?"
"He must be. We saw him more than four years ago and he was seventeen then. Anyway, he says in his letter he's married and he wants to get out of East Germany and live in the west, maybe even in the Netherlands."
"Oh oh, I don't like the sound of this much, Arie. You know we can't go into the East. Wolfsburg is as far as I'm allowed to go."
"He'll know that I'm sure, Papa. He says a barge skipper has posted this letter for him but won’t help him get out. Anyway, he says the place where he lives in East Germany isn’t very far from Wolfsburg, and if we do go there, could we go and see someone for him? It’s his wife's brother, Karl. He's given me an address in the city. Apparently they have a plan already."
"Well, okay, Arie, as long as it doesn't mean us getting shot at by East German guards or crossing the border. I can't risk that."
"I know. But we can at least see what we can do to help, can't we?"
"Yes, son. We can.We all took to that young man when he was with us. It would be good to see him again. You can send him a letter to say we'll let him know next time we're heading that way and then we'll find out if and what is possible. I can’t promise anything, though. And it'll probably be a month or so before we can go that way.” He stopped and looked at Arie thoughtfully. “Amazing to think he's married now. Jannie will be upset, don't you think?"
"Jannie? No way, Papa. Jannie's got loads of boys after her now. She hasn't mentioned Dmitri in years. She's grown up a lot since then." Arie said, although he wasn't totally sure if he was right. His fourteen-year-old sister had been just ten when they’d rescued Dmitri, a young Russian who’d stowed away on their barge on one of their trips to Lille in France. At the time, she’d nurtured a serious crush on the boy.
But Arie knew his sister’s moods weren’t always easy to gauge. She'd grown out of her baby chubbiness and was as pretty as a picture with the same bouncing curls and sparkling eyes their older sister Anneke had; except that Jannie was as dark as Anneke was blonde. Oddly enough, despite all the boys that drooled over her, she still maintained she was quite happy to stay on board and help their mum. A real homebody, she was.
As for Anneke, she was eighteen now and working on land. She'd found a job in a bakery and was going to evening classes as well. Always too lively to be satisfied with living on a barge, she was happy to be leading her own life and had a young man courting her—well, several actually, but Geert was the only one she was interested in. Arie was sure she'd be married by the time she was twenty. He sighed. Things had changed so much in the past four years.
It was Dmitri who'd indirectly made him realise he wanted to be a skipper like his dad. When they'd saved him from almost certain death at the hands of secret service agents back in December 1962, the whole Kornet family united to protect the young Russian and help him flee across the Belgian border into France. Arie realised then that his place was on the barge. Their life might be insular, but it was good and the boating community looked after its own. No one but a skipper’s family would have put their lives at risk as his had done; not to help a complete stranger, anyway.
His experience with the treacherous behaviour of Dmitri's enemies was enough to put him off life on the land. But he still wanted to finish school with a decent education. Arie loved history and languages, so he’d decided to get his school diploma, something none of the rest of his family had. His parents agreed and so he’d finished in June with an official secondary education certificate which included French, English and German, as well as his native Dutch.
“After all, a skipper needs to talk the talk with people in foreign countries, doesn’t he, Papa?” Arie had said when he discussed it with his father.
“He surely does, my boy. I manage, but it’ll be useful to have someone on board who knows more French and German than I do. Not sure how English will help, but maybe one day,” he’d said with a wink.
When Arie disappeared back into the wheelhouse, Hendrik picked up his pencils again. The heron had gone, but he decided to finish his drawing from memory. He’d show it to his wife, Marijke, when he was satisfied, knowing she’d like it.
Hendrik smiled at the memories evoked by their adventures with Dmitri. That was when Arie's life had changed and gained direction and Hendrik silently thanked Dmitri for being the catalyst in his son's decision to become a skipper. If Dmitri needed help again, then he would give it, providing it was possible.
Thinking back, he knew he could also thank Dmitri for his wife's change of heart. For some years before that eventful trip to Lille, Marijke had been withdrawn and silent, seeking refuge in her deafness from the pain of losing their first son to a drowning accident. It was easier for her to not to hear than it was to face life. For years, Hendrik and the children were unable to break down her barriers and help her recover from her distress, knowing she blamed herself for their son’s death. Dmitri was the same age as their boy would have been and Marijke was drawn to the kindness and courage in the Russian boy's personality. Her ready willingness to help him lit a spark in her Hendrik had believed was long dead.
In the years since then, she'd been much closer to the feisty lass he'd met and fallen in love with at the beginning of World War II. She'd come out of her shell again and despite her deafness, much of her sparkle and humour had returned. Yes, he was more grateful to Dmitri than anyone would ever know. And, if the boy could be helped, he was quite sure Marijke would agree.
Looking across the river again, Hendrik breathed in the smells and sounds of the Nieuwe Maas as it flowed downstream to the Hook of Holland. They had a good mooring here next to the water tower at De Esch. It was quiet, other than the slap of the tidal waters against the hull and the screech of the gulls wheeling overhead. And yet it was a quick ten-minute bike ride to the centre of Rotterdam, meaning Marijke, Arie and Jannie were never too far from the bustle of the city. For himself, he didn't mind, preferring his own company and that of the river life to people, but he knew his family needed to feel the real world now and then. A week was enough, though, and then they'd all be eager to be off. Faring was in their blood and none of them liked to be city-bound for long.
Tomorrow, he would head into town to the skippers' freight centre to bid for a load. Maybe this time, he'd focus on companies with goods for transport to Germany. They hadn't been to Wolfsburg in a while and it would be good to go east again. He'd look for a cargo of steel to take to the Volkswagen factory; that would be ideal. If he struck lucky, it would give them a chance to visit Dmitri’s brother-in-law and find out what he had in mind.
Marijke looked up from the bread dough she was kneading and smiled as her son's lanky frame tumbled into the room. He'd grown so much in the last two years. Nearly as tall as his father now, Arie was all loose limbs like a young colt, and his baggy shorts made him look even more gangly. Watching his bright, animated expression, it wasn't hard to see something had pepped him up.
"What is it, my boy?" she asked. Being mostly deaf, Marijke's voice had a slight lisp and she enunciated her words carefully.
She hadn't always been deaf; measles, caught from Anneke when she was a toddler, had hit her badly. While Anneke barely had any symptoms other than the usual spots, Marijke had been very ill and lost eighty percent of her hearing as a result.
Arie was intensely protective of his mother, treating her with gentle consideration. He always took care to speak directly to her, making sure she could see his lips. Today, though, his excitement made him blurt out his story without pausing. Marijke laughed. He was behaving like a child, not the almost-man he'd become.
"Slow down, my boy," she said, with just a tinge of exasperation. "I can neither see nor hear what you're saying. Tell me again what's got you so excited."
Arie took a deep breath.
"It's Dmitri, Mama. You remember? He's sent me a letter from East Germany. He's alive and, you'll never believe this; he's married!"
"Dmitri? That young Russian boy we helped ... what was it? Three? Four years ago? That's wonderful news, Arie! I'm so pleased you know for sure he escaped now. What a relief!"
"Yes, and Mama, he wants to come to the West, and to know if we can help him again!"
Marijke frowned. "But how can we? If he's in East Germany, there's nothing we can do. We can't cross the border. You know that," she said, echoing her husband’s concerns.
Arie explained the Wolfsburg connection; how Dmitri's wife had a brother there, but Marijke was still dubious as to what they could do, however keen they were to support him. Dmitri's vulnerability had touched them all and Marijke was still outraged that subversive government forces could deliberately exploit a boy and then cold-heartedly plan to kill him.
His own people had used him as a mule to carry bomb components from Russia to France without his knowledge. As soon as he’d delivered them, he was to be ‘liquidated’. Luckily, he’d overheard their plans for him and escaped, eventually finding his way onto the Kornet’s barge where Arie found him. Hendrik was not best pleased at first; there’d been some alarming incidents with the thugs who were pursuing Dmitri. But once Hendrik understood what was happening, his sense of justice overcame his indignation and he was steadfast in his determination to help the boy escape.
Marijke thought back to the fun they'd had teaching Dmitri Dutch and encouraging him to participate in their family activities. Despite the danger his presence added to their lives, she'd loved having him with them and would willingly have risked keeping him on as an additional member of the family. But she also knew it wasn't safe for the lad. They'd all regretted sending him on his way in Lille, but none more so than her. She sighed.
"Arie, don't get too excited, my boy. Listen to your father, this time. You don't want to tangle with the East German authorities. They're completely ruthless and will shoot without hesitation if you put even one toe across the border."
"It's alright, Mama. I won't. I'm older now, and anyway, Papa says we'll do what we can, but only if it's safe."
"He said that? Really?"
Arie grinned, his tanned face lighting up. "He really did."
"Well, alright, then, but don't tell Jannie yet. She's never really got over her crush on that young man. It will upset her terribly to hear he's married. She made up her mind he'd wait for her, silly girl."
"Oh? I thought she'd forgotten him. She never says anything these days."
"Oh Arie. How little you know girls. You'll learn one day, son." Even as she spoke, Marijke's heart winced in pain, knowing it wouldn't be long before her beloved child was bringing girlfriends home. He couldn't remain oblivious to their charms forever, and eventually she'd lose him to one of them. If she was lucky, she thought wistfully, he might choose to stay on board; she could only hope and be glad that at least it hadn't happened yet.
Arie was just about to open his mouth to respond to his mother when Jannie swung down the stairs to the cabin. Her dark curls were wind-blown and her flushed cheeks shone with both health and heat.
“Had a good walk, sis?” Arie asked her, quickly settling his expression into the teasing grin he reserved for his sibling. “You look a bit sweaty.”
“So would you be if you bothered to take any exercise,” Jannie said, swatting her brother in passing. “I’ve been running, not just walking. And anyway, I'm a girl, so I perspire. I don't sweat!” She turned to face Marijke. “Mama, it’s so beautiful outside. I just ran for the joy of it. You should have come with me.”
“Well, schat, I’m very happy you enjoyed it, but if I’d come, you’d have left me behind. Walking is a pleasure, but I’m not fourteen anymore. I’ll go for a stroll later when the bread’s ready.”
She smiled at her children.
“Now you’d both best go and ask your father if there’s anything that needs doing while I tidy up. I’m sure the water tank needs filling.”
“I’ll do that, Jannie. You stay and help here. Do you need any drinking water now, Mama? I can go and fetch some for you.”
“Thank you, son. That would be very helpful.” Marijke placed her dough in a large bowl and covered it with a muslin cloth. “Jannie, could you take this into the wheelhouse for me? It can rise in the warm there.”
“Yes, Mama. Anything else?”
“Only cleaning up in here, lieverd. If we both do it, it won’t take long and then I can have a walk along the river too.”
As Jannie ran lightly up the stairs to the wheelhouse, Marijke looked around the room that made up most of their living space. Being a large luxe motor, the Rival had a generous back cabin, or roef as the Kornets called it. Nevertheless, it wasn’t much for a family of four. Marijke’s kitchen was a tiny nook in the corner of the room, in which there was a sink with a hand pump, some shelves and cupboards.
In the main cabin, there was a small diesel-fired range for cooking on, a recent addition, which made baking bread and cakes possible. A well-worn scrubbed-top pine table stood in the centre of the room and the sides of the cabin housed more cupboards, whose shelves reached under the side decks of the barge. Then there was a toilet in the space next to the stairs, which looked like another cupboard when its panelled sliding door was closed. Marijke appreciated how well the limited space they had was used and she was proud of their small home.
At the back of the cabin, another sliding door with a frosted glass panel closed off two bunk beds set on each side of a narrow passage, and underneath each bunk was a set of drawers. They certainly had enough storage space for their possessions, although it had to be said, they didn’t have many. Arie, and now Jannie too, slept in the cabin below the foredeck or vooronder of the barge. Since Anneke had left home and Jannie was growing up, Hendrik had managed to make two separate cubicles out of the room so the two teenagers each had their own tiny space.
When the girls were younger, they’d both slept in one of the bunks while Hendrik and Marijke shared the other. Now they could spread out a bit further. But even with the new arrangement, Marijke was aware it couldn’t last. They’d have to do something to give their children more room if both of them wanted to stay on board. She had to smile. Most barge children couldn’t wait to leave home, but she and Hendrik couldn’t seem to get rid of theirs, and for that they had Dmitri to thank, at least in part.
She started wiping down the table and when Jannie returned with the jerrycan Arie had filled, the two of them set to washing the dirty utensils. While they worked, Marijke wondered whether she should broach the subject of Dmitri to Jannie.
After checking their water supplies, Arie climbed out of the area below the roef where the tanks were kept. The Kornets had two of them: one for drinking water, a precious commodity, and the other for river or canal water to cater for the family's utilities, such as washing dishes, clothes and personal ablutions. Everything had to be pumped up to the kitchen by hand, of course, but Arie knew it was just one of the chores of living on board. Actually, the word chore was too strong. It was a ritual he enjoyed and the more he saw of the convenience world that landlubbers occupied, the happier he was with his decision to become a skipper.
Today, he was going to fill the drinking water tank from a tap on the quay. That was the easy part, and he quickly collected the long hosepipe coiled round its wooden reel on the foredeck. Pulling the end free, he held it as he climbed the ladder in the harbour wall to the quay above and dragged the hose to the tap. As soon as the fitting was screwed in place, he turned the tap on and returned to the Rival.
By the time he was back on board, any stale water in the hose had been pushed out by the fresh stream, so he could feed the end into the tank’s opening. Clearing the pipe of old water was important, especially in the summer. Bugs and bacteria grew nicely in warm weather and could give rise to upset stomachs, or worse illnesses, such as dysentery.
Shoving his hands in the pockets of his shorts, he leaned against the roef while he waited for the tank to fill. He'd have to keep ducking down below decks to check the level, but it was more pleasant out here on deck with the breeze blowing off the river. On the other side of the wheelhouse, he could see his father was still sketching and wondered what he was drawing now. It was funny how Papa was so keen on art as a hobby—as if he'd discovered an old part of himself and was eager to revive it. He was good, though. Arie loved the architecture of historical buildings, but he didn't know much about art. But even he could see his father was gifted and he wondered if he could do it too. Maybe he'd inherited the talent and didn't know it. Perhaps he'd give it a go himself one day.
His thoughts drifted to the letter that was stiffening the inside of his back pocket, and his heart beat faster. Since the day Dmitri had disappeared from their lives, Arie had never been certain he was still alive. There'd been one postcard he'd received a few months later with 'A la prochaine' written on it, but the postmark was blurred and the date wasn't clear. He'd been excited to get it at the time, then over the years the doubts had crept in. There'd been no way of knowing whether the Dmitri had escaped his pursuers. Now, though, it was definite.
Arie was overjoyed, exhilarated even, and couldn't wait to see his friend again. He knew he'd have to be patient, though. They couldn't go to Wolfsburg unless there was a load for them to take and who knew how long that would take? A few years back, he'd have pushed his father into leaving early. These days, however, he understood more of the skipper's trade and was aware they had to go and return with a full load to make it financially worthwhile.
After checking the level of the tank, Arie, sat on the roef again. The sun was hot on his back, so he took his shirt off and revelled in the feeling of the heat as it soaked into his skin. Looking up, he gazed at the water tower next to the harbour. It was such a magnificent building; he never tired of seeing it and often spent happy hours wandering around the entire water purification complex behind it.
Ever since he could remember, Arie had been fascinated by old buildings and their history. Having their mooring right next to this beautiful 19th century water tower was a real bonus, especially as it was also next to a series of rectangular water filtration ponds, each one with its own quaint filter house. And then adjacent to the ponds was the fine pump-house built in the same style as the water tower.
The brickwork and arched windows on all these buildings fascinated Arie. Considering they were purely utilitarian structures, the attention to detail and design was amazing and he wondered when it was that designers of factories and other functional premises decided it was no longer necessary to make them pleasing to the eye. After all, people still had to work in them and surely it made a difference to their day if they didn't have to spend all their time in stark, bleak box-like buildings. Maybe it was the war that did it. They’d had to rebuild Europe as cheaply and quickly as possible, so perhaps design for its own sake ceased to matter.
But the water tower wasn't in use anymore. Sadly, with the development of modern pumps, the city didn't need its old-fashioned gravity system, even in emergencies. There was talk of converting it to some other use and Arie hoped that would happen. It would be shameful if it were allowed to fall into decay. Still, at least it gave him pleasure, and judging by the number of people he'd seen walking around the complex, others enjoyed it too. The whole installation was unique and recognised as a monument, which gave him confidence.
Sighing, he got up and climbed down the ladder to check the water level, and realised with alarm he'd left it too long. Within a minute it would be overflowing. Dashing back out on deck, he scrambled up the ladder and ran to the tap, turning it off and unscrewing the hose-pipe fitting simultaneously.
"Phew! That was close," he said, breathless in his relief. Hauling the long hose back with him to the Rival, he lay it along the side-deck before closing the filler cap of the tank. He realised just how late he'd left it when he saw the water a mere millimetre or so below the top of the opening.
"That'll teach me to daydream," he muttered aloud, as he screwed the cap firmly on.
"What will teach you, Arie?"
His father's voice made him jump. Looking up with a sheepish grin, he confessed what had almost happened. To his surprise, Hendrik laughed.
"You wouldn't be the first to let the tank overflow, Arie. I've done it; your mama's also done it, but mostly we keep quiet about it until someone else forgets it too. Still, you're sharper and quicker than we are, so I'm glad you don't have any mopping up to do."
"Me too, Papa, but I can't promise I won't forget in future. I suppose once I've had to deal with the results I won't make that mistake again, will I?"
"That's usually how it works, yes, my boy. Anyway, I thought you might like this sketch I've just done. I drew it for you since we don't have a photo of it."
Hendrik handed his son the sketchpad and Arie studied the almost perfect rendition of the water tower that had been distracting him.
"Oh my. This is wonderful, Papa. It's brilliant. As good as any photograph. I love it!"
"Then it's yours, son. I'll tear it out and you can have it in your room. It'll remind you of home when we're on the way."
"Home?" Arie grinned. "The Rival is home. It doesn't matter where we are, we're always home."
"You're right, I know. But Rotterdam is our base and De Esch is where we stay when we're here, so it's also a home of sorts. And I know you like it here."
"I do, Papa, but actually I'm ready to leave. We've been here for four days now. It feels like we're on holiday but I know we aren't. When are you going into the skippers' beurs?"
"Give me a chance!" Hendrik chuckled. "It's Monday today and we only got here on Friday. I thought we could all do with an extra day off after the last long trip. I'll go in tomorrow. Maybe I'll find a job that will take us to Germany. You never know," he finished with a sly grin.
Seeing Arie’s eyes light up, though, Hendrik felt a sudden surge of unaccustomed excitement.
Perhaps, he thought, it really was time for a new adventure.