A Guest Review by Cryselle
Review Summary: Opposites attracting with a cheery British flavour had me reading this story straight through.
Like two ships passing in the night—if one was a narrowboat and the other a luxury yacht.
Disgraced private school teacher Giles Rathbourne has been sent home on extended sick-leave and is stuck in a rut of obsessive housework and drinking. His ex may have been a snobbish bastard, but without him, Giles is adrift, rattling around his huge, lonely house. When a dreadlocked narrowboater’s engine breaks down at the end of his canal-side garden, Giles is furious at this invasion of his privacy—for a while.
Smutty might not have ever held down a proper job, but the fire-dancing, free-spirited traveller can recognise an opportunity for mutual benefit when he sees it. Giles’ extensive gardens are in as desperate need of attention as the upper-class hunk is himself, whereas Smutty knows a thing or two about plants and needs a place to moor up.
A simple business arrangement between two men who have nothing else in common? It would be—if they could keep their hands off each other!
Giles and Smutty are opposites in every way—you’d think. Giles comes from money and lives in the ancestral house, which he’s trying to take care of himself. The light bulbs are dusted, but the gardens are going to jungle, because Giles’ obsessive cleaning keeps him indoors, fretting and drinking, trying to wash away the pain his stuck-up ex left behind. He’s got a trace of whimsy, nearly dead and buried under the weight of Fabian’s disapproval, but still hanging on, or he would never have gone out to the garden to chase away the intruder while wearing slippers with claws on.
Buying a wreck of a narrowboat with the last of his funds leaves Smutty depending on the goodwill of the property owner nearest where his engine expires. Raised in a commune that fell prey to developers and with a first love who ran out on him, Smutty’s resisted forming ties anywhere else. A narrowboat’s just the thing for a man who doesn’t want to put down roots, until it won’t run. With his dreads in bleached colours and tattoos blazing up his torso, Smutty looks like the flames he dances with; he’s much too wild, and yet oddly too conservative, for a man like Giles.
Yet as they work out how to mesh, even if temporarily, the two are more alike than it seems at first glance, and if they don’t mesh, the friction is interesting. Giles is teetering on the brink of alcoholism; Smutty shuns the stuff. Smutty dances with fire; Giles has reason to fear it. Yet they come together.
Fabian, the horrid ex, casts a very long shadow, even though he’s offstage for most of his role. The author tweaks the reader’s expectations of him masterfully; his truths are buried deep. Giles is still living in reaction to Fabian’s expectations; this was a toxic relationship but repeated exposures to Smutty’s herbal teas draw the poison from Giles’ heart. Kindness and real love are so far in Giles’ past he has some trouble recognizing the signs now. Fabian gets mentioned at times when I really didn’t want him intruding, but I could see why Giles would think of him then.
The gap in social status weighs more heavily on Smutty, whose off-the-grid lifestyle lifts a lot of eyebrows. His Maori heritage is his pride, the source of his livelihood, and cause for discrimination. He’s feeling the tick of time, not wanting to get too attached because he’ll be moving along soon. A posh fellow like Giles surely can’t want him long term, can he? The man who tends the gardens is only help to be dallied with, Smutty fears. A wanderer who accidentally boated into his life is only going to sail away again, Giles is sure. The gardens, long untended but starting to recover under Smutty’s care, are a lovely metaphor for the relationship, with roots, blooms, and a lot of work.
This was a charming journey, as the two men find the way to be together, and around the barriers to happiness that their pasts have erected. I read this in one sitting, thoroughly engrossed, and wishing I could watch Smutty dance with fire.
The story was originally serialized on the author’s blog, and is still there, but it’s more than worth the modest cover price to have a nicely formatted version where all the text is in one place. If Josephine Myles wasn’t already on my must-read list, this story would put her there. 5 stars