Swan

byAlex De Kok©

It was the run-up to the Summer Ball at the Green Lake Yacht Club when it started. Tony and I were in the changing room showering after our morning's water-skiing. I was shaken out of my daydream by Tony's voice.

"Going to the Summer Ball, Alec? You know the Ski club gets an allocation of tickets."

"Yeah, I know. But who to ask?"

"Yeah."

There was silence for a while, and then we both spoke at once. "Julie Trask!" More silence for a long moment as we realised we planned to ask the same girl, but Tony and I had been friends since first grade and neither of us wanted to hurt the other.

"We can't both ask her ," said Tony.

I started to agree, then had an idea. "Why not?" I said. "Let's finish off here, and go and find her. I think she does a Thursday afternoon in the gift shop during the summer. We'll go together, tell her we both want to ask her, and let her choose. I promise I won't break your neck if she chooses you."

"And if she already has a partner?"

"Plan B," I said, laughing. "We panic!"

Half an hour later, we found Julie in the gift shop. She smiled to see us. Well, that was encouraging, no immediate rejection.

"Hi, guys! Come to buy something?"

"Not exactly, Julie. We wanted to ask if you were planning on going to the Summer Ball at the Yacht Club?"

"Yes, I am," she said. "And?"

"We both wanted to ask you to be our partner. That is, if you haven't already been asked. We thought it fair if we both came, and whoever loses out asks someone else."

She gazed at us for a long moment, then frowned. "You're asking me to choose between you? That's not fair, guys. If either one of you had come and asked me, I'd have said yes. Now, you want me to hurt one of you." She shook her head, then laughed suddenly.

"I think I have a solution. You two are both powerboat types, aren't you? Water skiers?"

"Yeah, I guess," I said, and Tony nodded agreement.

"Do either of you know anything about dinghy sailing?"

We looked at each other, and then at Julie, who was smiling broadly. Uh-oh, I thought.

"No," said Tony.

"Pointy end is the front, same like a powerboat, but it needs wind instead of horsepower," I said, "and that's about my lot."

"Alec just about sums it up for me, too, Julie," said Tony. "So what's on your mind?"

"It's Thursday now. The Summer Ball is a week Sunday, but on the day before there's an open dinghy race, a fun event. It's a handicap, and most of the dinghies in the club are eligible. Borrow a dinghy, enter the open race, and whoever finishes highest, he'll be my partner. So, what do you say?"

Tony and I looked at each other. He shrugged. "Seems fair. Okay with you?"

"I guess. Okay, we'll do it!"

"Thanks, guys," said Julie. "I'm glad it's going to be one of you two. I've turned a couple of previous offers down, hoping someone nice would ask me, but I didn't expect two at once. Good luck, both of you. I suggest your next stop is the Yacht Club, get your entries in now."

Charlie Thompson, the Competition Secretary at the Yacht Club laughed long and loud when we told him why we were entering the race. He shook his head while he entered our names on the list of entries.

"Either of you got a dinghy to race?"

We shook our heads, and he nodded.

"Do you mind if I tell the guys why you're entering? I suspect one or two will be prepared to lend you a boat for the race, given the reason."

"Why not," I said, laughing. "The worst that can happen is we'll die of embarrassment."

"Tell you what," said Charlie, "one of you can borrow my Laser for the race. You'll still need to get someone to show you how to sail it, but at least you'll know what you're racing in." He took a dime from his pocket and poised it to throw. "Tony? Call it?"

"Heads!"

Charlie flipped the coin and we all watched as it fell, spun, rolled a little, and fell. Heads. Oh, well.

"Sorry, Alec. You'll need to borrow a boat from someone else." He glanced out of the window, and nodded his head towards the outside. "The answer might just be going past. Beth Allan. She has a Laser she might lend. That way, you'll both be in the same class of boat, so the race between you will be even even if you finish last and second-last."

"Okay, Charlie," I said. "Hint taken. Tony? Catch you later, okay?" and I hurried out to see if I could catch Beth.

Beth Allan. Little, mousy, Beth Allan. Honor student, a classmate since sixth grade, bright, intelligent, but self-effacing to an extreme. Everyone's friend, no-one's girlfriend, but one of the best dinghy sailors in the Club, a regular event winner. She was ambling along towards the car park, hands in her shorts pockets, head down, as usual. I felt a sudden twinge of sympathy.

"Beth?" I called, and she turned, surprised, smiling slightly when she saw it was me.

"Hi, Alec. You wanted me?" There was an undertone in her voice that I didn't recognise.

"I want to ask a favour," I said.

"Which is?"

"I've entered the open dinghy race next Saturday, but I haven't got a boat. Charlie said you might lend me your Laser. So, any chance of it?"

She stared at me for a long moment. "You, Alec? You've entered the open dinghy race? You, an avowed powerboat man? Whatever for?" There was astonishment and curiosity combined in her voice, in her look.

I shrugged. "Tony and I both asked Julie Trask to be our partner for the Summer Ball, and she said she'd go with whoever finished highest in the open race. Charlie is lending his own Laser to Tony, and he spotted you going past and suggested I ask you, because that way, we're racing the same class of boat, so the race will be fair, even if we're the last two to finish." I shrugged. "So, Beth, pretty please, may I borrow your Laser for the race?"

"Do you even know how to sail a dinghy?" said Beth.

I grimaced and shrugged. "No, I guess not."

"Let me see if I have this straight, okay? Not only do you need to borrow a dinghy, but you also need instruction on how to sail the thing? Is that right?"

"Yup. That's it in a nutshell, Beth. So can I borrow the Laser or not? Because if I can't, I need to find someone else with a boat I can borrow."

She gazed at me for a long, long moment. "You're serious about this?"

"I guess."

"Meet me at the basin tomorrow, nine o'clock. We can use my brother's fourteen-footer. Jeff won't mind, since he's in Europe on honeymoon. It's a nice stable boat. Not a racing boat, but it has everything we need to get you started, and there's room enough for two. Time enough for the Laser when you can sail Jeff's boat."

It was my turn to stare. Beth's head came up and she frowned. "Well?" she demanded.

I grinned. "Aye-aye, ma'am!" I saluted, and Beth laughed, transforming her usual solemn look for a moment, before it returned. "Nine o'clock at the basin. Thanks, Beth, you're an angel!"

"More likely a fool," I thought I heard her say, before she turned away towards the car park. She looked back. "Nine o'clock, or it's off!"

I gazed after her. Oh, well, that was my Friday lie-in off the agenda.

I was on time, but Beth was there before me. Shorts, a cotton sweater, sneakers, and a life vest, another in her hand. She handed it to me.

"Put that on. I know you can swim, I've watched you in the high school competitions often enough, but it's easy to get hit by a boom coming over, or hit your head if you slip and I don't want you to drown."

I bit back the quip I was about to make and took the life vest. A quick adjustment on the straps and Beth pronounced herself satisfied.

"Okay, I have Jeff's boat tied up near the bait shop. It's quieter there, we won't get in anybody's way, and I can find out how much you know about dinghies."

Which wasn't a lot. Almost any boat has similarities to others. A -- usually -- sharp bow, a -- usually -- blunter stern, and a rudder to steer with. I was more used to wheel steering on powerboats, but I grasped the dinghy essentials soon enough. When it came to rigging and sails, there I was in uncharted waters, if you'll pardon the expression. It took a while, and remembering that 'sheet' meant a rope, not a sail, took a while longer.

Eventually, after an hour or so, Beth pronounced herself satisfied for the moment, and we climbed aboard. The breeze was light, but Beth hoisted only the jib and out we went.

It was magical. I was so used to powerboats that the much more intimate interface between a sailing boat and its environment almost awed me. The usually solemn Beth came alive, and even when she was reprimanding me, there was a smile on her face and a sparkle in her eye. Thursday went by in a flash, Friday too. Saturday and Sunday were family days, but we were out on the water again on Monday and Tuesday. Wednesday was different. Wednesday, Beth let me try her Laser. Not a new boat, by any means, but she kept it in superb condition. Wednesday, my bubble burst, as I learned how much different it was sailing a single-place out-and-out racing boat. Beth had borrowed an outboard motor and fitted it to Jeff's dinghy, so that she could track me without having to look after her own sails at the same time. Not only track me, but, carefully keeping downwind, call out advice, instruction, and the occasional derogatory reprimand. Her sense of humor was refreshing, and I was thoroughly enjoying myself, even as I ended up in the water for the zillionth time.

If Wednesday was bad, Thursday was even worse, but on Friday, it all came together and I was able to tackle the course Beth set me successfully, without making any serious blunders, without falling in the water.

"You're as ready as I can make you, given the time we had," said Beth as we packed up on the Friday afternoon. "The race is at ten tomorrow morning, and it will be all over by eleven. You'll know if you're going to be Julie's date or not," she added. The solemn, unsmiling Beth was back. I preferred the other Beth, the one she became out on the lake, but I said nothing. I said nothing, because I was thinking about the following day, and not just about the race.

We'd seen Tony out on the water as Beth educated me in dinghy sailing. Tony's tutor was an older Club member called Chuck Owens, and Beth remarked that in a Laser race, she worried about Owens more than the other competitors.

"We've both won, both lost. I think the score is about five-four to Chuck, but I'll beat him again, I know I will. Tony is getting some good teaching."

"It can't be better than mine, Beth. No way," I said, and she gave me a half smile.

"See you in the morning, Alec," she said, and she was away.

"See ya, Beth," I murmured.

Saturday dawned bright and dry, with a promise of heat. The breeze was a little fresher, but not enough to worry me. Beth had her Laser ready for me, and I excused myself for a moment and went over to Tony. I stuck my mitt out and we shook hands.

"May the best man win," I said.

Julie was there, looking gorgeous, and gave us both a kiss on the cheek and a good luck hug. I went back to where Beth waited.

"This is it, Alec. Don't forget what I taught you. At least, not until after the race. Okay?"

"Thanks, Beth. I owe you."

She shook her head. "You owe me nothing, Alec. I enjoyed it. After college I think I'll see if any of the sailing schools need an instructor."

"You're a natural, Beth, an absolute natural. You should walk it."

"Yeah, maybe. Okay, Alec, good luck, and I'll see you at eleven. Don't break my boat, will you?"

"No way, Beth. Thanks, thanks a lot."

She nodded, but didn't say anything else, avoiding my eye, and gave the boat a push as I cast off. She was standing there, looking after me, as I made my way out to join the twenty or so other boats at the start. Beth had given me some tips about racing, but the essence was, don't get in anyone's way, make sure you round the buoys on the correct side, and have fun. I was pretty confident about the last bit, less so on the rest, but I was determined to make my best shot at it.

Both Tony and I got a reasonable start, about the middle of the field, and there was nothing between us for about the first forty-five minutes of the hour's race. We weren't doing too badly, about seventh and eighth, the faster boats with more experienced sailors having left us astern. That didn't matter, my task was to beat Tony and as the hour approached I was leading him by about four boat lengths approaching the final buoy. We'd had the last lap signal as we'd crossed the finish line last time around, so I knew this was it.

Approaching the last buoy I was thinking about the week just gone. About Beth. Her animation, her unexpected quick wit, her simple joy just in being out on the water. The final buoy was getting close and as I started the turn I let the wind spill from the sail for a moment, before hauling on the sheet and getting back on course, just half a length behind Tony as he crossed the line.

Back on the dock Tony gave me a high five, grinning like a fool, a smiling Julie holding his hand.

"You had it, buddy," said Tony. "What happened?"

"I guess it was the excitement getting to me. You won, so fair's fair. You two have fun at the ball, okay?"

"We will. Okay, Julie?"

"Just a moment, Tony. I want a quick word with Alec. Catch you up, you get us some coffee, okay?"

Tony went off, whistling, and Julie turned to me, smiling. "Nice one, Alec. Maybe the best man lost." She held my eye for a moment. "Ask her, Alec, ask her now, before anyone else does. As of two minutes ago she doesn't have a partner for the Ball." She stretched up, gave me a light kiss on the lips and went after Tony. I stared after her for a moment, bemused, and then turned to where Beth was waiting.

She glared at me. "You could have won, you know?"

I nodded. "I know."

"So, what happened?"

I smiled at her. "I realised that there was another prize I wanted more than a date with Julie."

Beth snorted. "Such as?"

"Elizabeth Allan," I said, holding her eye. "Will you be my partner for the Yacht Club Summer Ball?" Then I held my breath.

She stared at me, then flushed a deep red. "Yes," she whispered. "I will."

"Good." I took her hand. "Let's go get a coffee."

She stopped, but didn't let go of my hand, bringing me to a halt. "No, not at the moment." She gave me a wry smile. "I need something to wear tomorrow, so I need to be somewhere else. The Ball starts at seven. Will you pick me up from home at six forty-five, say?"

I nodded. "I'll be there." I grinned. "I'd better make sure my car is clean!"

"You do that!" She squeezed my hand, gave me a radiant smile, and she was away, hurrying. I followed her towards the car park at a slower pace, a smile on my face, and a content within me.

The car was clean, my shirt was new, and my tux still fitted me. I knocked on the door of the Allan residence at precisely six forty-five. Beth's mom opened the door. She was all dressed up, too.

"Alec! Right on time. Come in, Cinderella won't be but a moment."

"Thank you Mrs Allan. Do I take it you're going to the ball as well?"

"You do. Joe and me, we haven't missed one in twenty years." Upstairs, a door closed, and we heard the clack of heels. Mrs Allan smiled at me. "I think Cinderella approaches. Will you have her home by midnight, please, Alec?"

"Of course."

She smiled, but said nothing more, and we both watched as Beth came down. To say that the ugly duckling had become a swan is the stuff of cliché, but it was apt. Why I'd ever thought of Beth as skinny or mousy was beyond me now. The dark-brown hair that was usually swept back in a pony tail was done up in a very adult roll at her nape. The slender body -- slender, not skinny - that was usually hidden by shapeless sweaters was clad in an ivory ball gown, long, flowing. She wore a shawl across her shoulders, and carried a tiny evening purse. Normally Beth wore not a trace of make-up, but her face was subtly assisted by cosmetics, mostly her eyes and lips, and she looked as nervous as a kitten in a pack of dogs.

"Cleans up good, doesn't she?" said Mrs Allan in an undertone, but I could hear the pride in her voice.

"She's beautiful," I murmured, moving forward to Beth, who'd paused, nervous, hesitant. I held out the corsage I'd brought to her. "For you." I smiled. "You look lovely."

She looked down at the corsage, to avoid my eyes, I think, then turned to her mother."Mom? How do I do this?"

"Come here, sweetheart."

A few minutes later we were on our way, Beth beside me in my now gleaming old Ford station wagon, and a few minutes after that I eased the Ford into a vacant parking bay, and into the Ball we went.

I don't remember much about that evening, not in detail. I just know that I enjoyed every moment of it. We shared a table with Tony and Julie. Tony hadn't even recognised Beth at first, to his great embarrassment, but Beth forgave him.

"I didn't even recognise myself in the mirror, Tony, so what chance did you have?" she said, squeezing his fingers.

"Still, I made a big boo-boo, Beth. So you're an angel to let me down this easy." Tony bent and kissed her hand and Julie tugged at his jacket.

"Hey, Romeo, you're with me, remember?" she said, with a wink for Beth, and the awkward moment was gone. The four of us had a great time. I couldn't remember when I'd danced so much, but I was glad Mom had insisted on me having dance lessons, because dancing with Beth was wonderful.

Later in the evening I danced with Julie while Tony danced with Beth.

"She looks lovely, Alec. Pleased you asked her?" Julie's eyes were bright with laughter.

"Yes, I am. Very. When we were out on the lake, when Beth was teaching me to sail, I realised I didn't know Beth Allan, that the Beth I thought I knew was an illusion. The Beth I'm with tonight is magic, a witch."

Julie laughed. "You realise you're falling in love with her, don't you?"

"Maybe I am. It wouldn't be hard."

"Well good luck to both of you," said Julie, applauding as the number finished. I led her back to the table, glancing at my watch. Eleven forty-five. I was reluctant to spoil the moment but it was Beth who spoke first.

"Alec, I promised Mom I'd be home by midnight.She and Dad left about five minutes ago." She made a face. "I don't really want to go, but I promised."

"That's okay. I told her I'd have you home by twelve. I think we might be a couple of minutes late, but that's all. Shall we?"

We said our goodbyes to Tony and Julie, and our other friends, and went out to my car. It took a few minutes to extricate it from the haphazardly parked cars around it, but we managed, and I drove Beth home. Five past twelve.

Outside her home, I set the parking brake and killed the motor. A figure peered from the house window, saw us, and disappeared again.

"Mom," said Beth. "We're okay for a few minutes, now she knows I'm home safe."

"Good. Beth?"

"Yes?"

"I don't want tonight to be a once-only thing. I'd like to go on seeing you, if I can."

"You mean, for regular dates? I'd like that," she said, her tone soft. "I was scared tonight, scared I'd make a fool of myself, trip, or something, but it was lovely. I'm really pleased you asked me."

"Tomorrow?" I said.

"What about tomorrow?"

"I think I still need sailing lessons, don't you? I know I've been a powerboat freak, but I think it was partly that I didn't realise how magical a sailboat can be. I want to know more, so will you teach me?"

"I'd love to, but can we make it Tuesday? I need to do some overdue chores around the house. Mom's been very patient, but I can see the gleam in her eye," said Beth, laughing.

"Of course. I don't want to monopolise all of your time." I laughed. "Just most of it!"

Beth giggled. "Suits me," she said. "Now, though, I think I'd better get myself indoors. Shall I meet you at the Yacht Club on Tuesday?"

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