"So how does it work?" he asked, shuffling his feet nervously.
I didn't understand the question so asked him what he meant.
"Well, look at it. It's wonky. We'll all fall out."
True enough, as it lay on the sand, it was leaning at an angle, but all that proved was that Traeth had literally no understanding of how a boat floats upon the water.
"When we get it in the sea," I explained, "the keel drops below the waterline so that it's level."
Traeth looked horrified. "You mean it sinks!" he exclaimed.
"I suppose, in a way, a bit of it does, yes, but the bulk of it remains above the water. The bottom board," and I smacked it with my hand, "ends up about level with the waterline."
He still looked unsure.
"Look, we'll show you."
Rutter, Al and I rolled up our trouser legs (for what good it did us. We still got soaked) and dragged the boat into the water until it was floating in the shallows.
"Ah!" exclaimed Traeth when he saw how it floated in the water, but then he became anxious again.
"Come on then," I smiled. "You said you were going to get in."
"Yes ... but how?"
"You can either wade out and climb in ... or, if you don't want to get your feet wet, Rutter can give you a piggyback."
I knew that neither option offered much comfort for him. The Dirrians aren't big on physical contact with strangers (they're not that keen on hugging their own family) and I remembered how shocked Traeth had been at the orphanage. We have no thought for how often children touch each other, be it playing tag in the park, brushing each other's hair or huddling in the corner of the library looking rude words up in the dictionary. Then I remembered how I had hugged him at the palace earlier. He had returned that embrace warmly, so he was right, he had changed.
"Come on," I encouraged and held out my hand. "I'll help you."
Traeth didn't take it but stood studying the water suspiciously.
"Look, it's not deep. You can still see my feet on the bottom. Take my hand and we'll get you into the boat first."
I could see Traeth summoning up his courage, but his face was pale and he gulped air. Then he swallowed hard and reached out. As his fingers touched mine, they were cold and sweaty. He gripped my hand hard, really hard, so hard it hurt, but I said nothing. Al came forward and held out her hand for him too. He took it and between the two of us, he took the tiniest, little steps edging cautiously out into the water. It barely covered his feet and he stopped. A bead of cold sweat trickled down the side of his face and dripped into the sea.
"It's okay," I soothed, encouraging him on another couple of steps until he was ankle deep in the warm ocean.
"You're doing great, Traeth. You've come further than any other Dirrian before you."
Traeth began to laugh, a strange mix of hysteria and exhilaration. His grip tightened further and I winced at the pain. Traeth was oblivious to it; he was concentrating on his feet as he took more steps. Now he was shin deep and I could feel his whole body shaking. His breathing was strained and erratic and his hands where slick with sweat but he didn't relent. He was determined to do this.
The water licked at his knees and his eyes darted back and forth to the little boat bobbing up and down before him. He suddenly let go of Al's hand and grabbed the gunwale. The boat swayed furiously at the sudden movement and he squealed.
"It's okay!" I shouted. "That's normal. It'll be settle when we're all in it."
Al grabbed his arm to steady him, and we, rather clumsily, helped Traeth into the boat. We set out quite gently but as our fumbling turned into manhandling, Al suddenly took matters into her own hands and quite unceremoniously picked him up and tossed him into the boat. Poor Traeth squawked as he landed and lay there, giggling maniacally and clinging to the bottom boards like a newly-rescued shipwrecked sailor.
Al turned to me and mouthed an apology. I replied with a sheepish grin.
Rutter held onto the bow line while Al and I returned to the beach and picked up our equipment to load it into the boat. Finally we boarded, and Rutter too. We took a moment to organise ourselves and encourage a jittery Traeth into a sitting position in the middle of the boat, his buttocks on the bottom board. We wanted to keep him as low in the boat as possible where he would feel the safest and help us maintain the little vessel's stability.
Rutter fired up the engine. It roared into life, startling Traeth for a moment, and then it settled into a deep, throbbing purr. Finally, we were on our way.