February 24, 2010

Swan wars

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 11:20 am

For many years a pair of swans has lived at Enslow, where my boat Pangolin is moored.  The swans spend their days cruising along the canal and knocking at the sides of boats, begging for bread.  They rarely stray farther than the quarter of a mile line of moored narrowboats except to try their luck at the marina just beyond the bridge.

The male swan must have been part of a study at some time, because his left leg is tagged with the letters BUG.  All the boaters know the pair as Bugsy and his missus.

Last year was a rough one for the Bugsies. 

First, a much younger and larger swan (nicknamed Brutus) tried to move in on the territory, and though Bugsy saw him off, he was badly wounded.  The boaters were incensed.  Down the pub dark threats were muttered against this intruder, and one boater was rumoured to have called the RSPCA anonymously to say that if they didn’t come and take Brutus away he would take matters into his own hands. 

Perhaps Brutus knew what was good for him, but he wasn’t seen again that spring, and after awhile Bugsy dutifully made the missus several nests for her inspection.  She tried first one, and then another, and finally settled on the one almost opposite my boat.

In May I watched the proud parents take their day old cygnets for a first swimming lesson on the canal.  The little cygnets swam about for five minutes or so and then were tucked back into the nest for the night.

Babies and watchful parents

They were never seen again, though a mink was later spotted looking sleek and well fed by the lock.  Mrs Bugsy spent weeks more sitting on her nest, but if she had any more eggs they were eaten too.

It made me sad last summer not to see a brood of cygnets growing up.  I went away late September, and when I came back in January, a different family had moved in: Brutus and his missus were back, with one overgrown cygnet, the last one of a brood they must have hatched last spring.

The three begged at my window and I guiltily fed them.  I don’t think any of the other boaters did.  They’re very loyal at Enslow.

Bugsy was gone, and Mrs Bugsy spent her evenings swimming up and down and calling mournfully for him.  The Grumpy Mechanic said, It really just breaks your heart.  Dusty said it was a very bad sign that he had left her.  At the pub everyone asked each other, Have you seen Bugsy? Have you seen Bugsy?

Suddenly the word in the pub was he had been spotted in a field.  Everyone shook their heads: He was flopping about!  He must have had a stroke! Or something.  The Grumpy Mechanic said Bugsy was ever so old.  The Grumpy Mechanic has been here the longest, twenty years now, but he can’t remember just when Bugsy came.   Years and years back, he said.  He was sure there was a number you could call for Swan Rescue.  A van would come and pick Bugsy up.  Poor old Bugsy!  It breaks your heart!

Two of the boaters decided to pick him up themselves, but when they got to the field, he was gone, and we were back to, Have you seen Bugsy?  Have you seen Bugsy?

Brutus’ cygnet disappeared first – nine months old and time to strike off on his own, I suppose – and then, suddenly, he and his missus left too.  I watched them fly noisily over the canal and across the fields and I didn’t see them again. 

When I realised Mrs Bugsy had given up her mournful search and was gone as well, I was very sad.  For a while we had no swans at all.

I took a walk to Pigeon’s lock, two miles up the towpath, and spotted a pair of swans on the opposite side.  One swam close to me, begging for bread, and I felt ridiculously happy when I saw that it was Bugsy.

I was so glad Bugsy was all right and he and his missus were together again, but I wondered if they would ever come back to Enslow.  I missed them!

This morning they were here, knocking on the boat.  I opened my window to throw them bread, and a duck joined in the happy feasting.

February 22, 2010

India calling

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 3:50 pm

It is my mother’s birthday, and I haven’t spoken to her since I got back to England six weeks or so ago.  I don’t have a landline anymore, and because it is awfully expensive to make or receive international calls on a cell phone, I bought a “phone card” this evening, especially to wish her many happy returns of the day.

What I really purchased, of course, was a phone number and a PIN, sent by email, costing £3.25 (just a fraction over $5).  I used my credit card.  In less than a quarter of an hour a customer service agent telephoned me to make sure the payment was “authorised”.  I knew from the agent’s accent that it was a very long distance call.

I always find Indian call centre employees charming and perfectly polite.  But this time I was so stunned to be telephoned from so far away for such a small purchase that I forgot to do what my mother always remembers – to ask what the weather is like.  It is my mother’s way of engaging with people who otherwise speak only from a script, hour after hour.

My elder brother and the Lawyer Sis have just the same charming (though much loonier) manner as my mother. They always chat to anyone who serves them, in person or over the phone. 

My own instinct is to be taciturn in person, and efficient and businesslike on the phone, to get both sorts of transactions completed as quickly as possible.  But I try to overcome that instinct, and remember instead, at the supermarket checkout and when India calls, to follow the example of my mother and my brother and sister. 

When I do I am almost always rewarded with courtesy and gratitude – and every now and again I get to chat with someone interesting.

Meanwhile, that Old Woman is galavanting about somewhere, as usual, and not answering her phone.  Nevertheless, her fans should hie on over there and wish her a happy birthday.

February 17, 2010

The Persian bordello

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 4:33 pm

Actually I have never so much as seen a picture of a Persian bordello, let alone been inside such a place, but I fancy that I have decorated narrowboat Pangolin in what could have been a pre Ayatollah style.  That’s my improbable excuse for the excess of colour, pattern and just plain stuff I have thrown together. I’m thinking Marco Polo cosmopolitan; they are thinking Improvised Explosive Device.

Nevertheless, here is my boat from the outside, rather in need of a new paint job. (Click on any picture for more detail.) Pangolin is 62 feet long and 6 feet 10 inches wide, which may give you a clue why these are called narrow boats.  She was named (not by me) after a South American anteater-like creature.

Here’s the inside, photographed from the front doors. You can see the saloon (living room), the dining area, and the galley (kitchen). You can’t really see beyond the kitchen to the bathroom, bedroom and engine room: the corridor is behind the tall turquoise kitchen cabinet on the right.

Here is the saloon looking the other way, from the dining table.

There are shelves on either side. I photographed the shelves on the left in the day time and the shelves on the right at night.  The pictures are of my children, of course.  The little stone cats aren’t Persian – my daughter brought them back from Africa – and the rooster bird nest box is all American, now hanging outside the boat, waiting for expatriot tenants.

This time of year the fire is going all day and all night. I burn wood sometimes, but more often coal, which makes a fair amount of dust, probably known to the State of California to cause cancer. The stove is made in Norway, where they know a thing or two about cold weather. The fan is a Canadian invention. The hotter the stove, the faster the blades spin.  It’s quite cool (if you know what I mean). 

I often cook dinner, and warm my plates, on the fire, using the same fuel that keeps me warm to feed me.  But since most forms of cooking (not to mention food) are known to the State of California to cause cancer  I am not sure it is a good plan.  Whether or not it is eco friendly is a hard equation. 

If have turned down the airflow on the stove just right at bed time, when I get up in the morning the fan is moving very, very slowly; then I pull the knob that riddles the stove, open the bottom door, and in a few minutes the coals are glowing red again and the fan is spinning merrily. 

The ridiculous monkey candle holder is my mother’s idea of funny.  The rooster clock (like the bird box) is from my kids, and was once in my house in the village.  We lived next door to quite a few  roosters, and we adopted the principle of know thy enemy.  Or maybe we were just collecting talismans to ward the enemy off.  You think I am exaggerating.  You think roosters crow at dawn?  They crow all the bloody time. 

Next to the saloon is the dining area.

Rooster table cloth.

Rooster cushions.

The children are not to blame; I made the cushions and table cloth myself.

Opposite the dining table is a shelf with a drop down leaf. When it is raised the table will just about seat six, though guests on the saloon side of the boat have to crawl under the table or go out the front door to get to the loo.

The cat is a maneki neko, a Japanese lucky cat.  He’s left handed (like me!), and a little solar cell makes him wave, and when he waves he throws luck.  If he had been right handed, apparently he would have thrown money. That might have been better. My son Silverbridge brought him back from Japan.

The dining room doubles as the guest berth, with the table folding down to make a very comfortable bed (and my readers are welcome to come and test that assertion).  The bed is six foot six inches long, and theoretically sleeps two.  But since, like my bed, it is only four feet wide it needs to be two people who like each other quite a lot. 

Beyond the kitchen is the galley.  It’s small, but it has a sink, fridge, cupboards and cooker (stovetop and oven).

Here’s the floor to ceiling kitchen cupboard. It’s hard to get far enough away to get a good picture, but you might be able to see my rooster tea pot. The cupboard holds my dishes, cups and glasses, food store, bin, dust pan and brush, etc.

A curtain separates the main living area of the boat from the bathroom and bedroom.  On the right is the hatch; in the summer it is usually open to keep the boat cool, and to feed the ducks.

Beyond the curtain is the bathroom, the bedroom, the engine room and the back door. Narrowboats are driven from the back, using a tiller.

It’s a flush toilet!

The bath isn’t very big, but neither am I.  I feel very indulgent when I bathe instead of shower. Actually, I feel indulgent when I take a shower. When I run out of water I have to drive the boat somewhere to fill it up, and I am not a very good driver. 

The bedroom,where we started this tour, has the only truly Persian item – a bedspread brought back from Iran when Silverbridge took part in the first school trip to that country after the 1979 revolution. 

Right. What do you think? Have I achieved Persian bordello or merely Oxfordshire hen house?

February 10, 2010

Many happy returns of the day

Filed under: misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 2:38 pm

It’s half past ten and I’m violating a fairly strict boaty rule: no engine running after eight. You can hear the big diesel rumble several boat lengths away, but as there is no one on board either in front or behind me, I am hoping I can get away with it, just this once.

When I don’t run the engine for a couple of hours a day the batteries reproach me in the morning. The charge needle dips below 12 volts and little red lights let me know I have done wrong. If I need any further nudging there’s the alarm that screams when the batteries are feeling malnourished and I happen to plug in my computer.

The batteries don’t care when they get their kicks, but experienced boaters shake their heads and cluck and mumble about efficiency and alternators if I switch on before nightfall, which leaves a narrow opportunity for doing right. I have begun to think that having five leisure batteries is not all that unlike having a husband and four children: I am expected to be home by six to do my duty.

I wasn’t home by six today, either to charge the batteries or to feed the fire, and I spent most of the hours I was away, not enjoying myself as I ought to have been (because it was my birthday), but in the John Radcliffe Hospital Accident and Emergency Department.

To while away the time I counted up how often I had already visited emergency rooms with my children. It’s a number so big I don’t like to confess to it, especially as one of my four has never contributed (touch wood), except as an innocent bystander.

Five broken bones and five foreign objects in the eye seem like the kinds of problems even a well-regulated, if a little unlucky, largish family might have. But there were at least half a dozen other ER visits, most of the complaints more exotic, like chlorine gas poisoning. I bet you didn’t think I was going to say that.

My youngest is responsible for more visits than all the others combined (including the chlorine incident). She’s especially not good with head injuries, having responded to her first toddler bump by holding her breath until she turned blue, went rigid, and passed out.

She went on as she had begun, though I only took her to the ER for that particular problem once. It was quite impressive when she did the blue rigid unconscious sequence in public and I had to restrain onlookers from calling ambulances first and child protection services next (apparently parental ennui at a comatose child is anti social and objectionable).

My Baby fell and banged her head on Sunday, and a few days later in the ER it was déjà vu all over again, except that this time she was almost all grown up and very funny while we waited for the radiographers and the neurologist. She didn’t pass out, but she did bump into things and she got several doctors upset.

Her mother was upset too.

The doctors were puzzled enough to keep her there for many hours, but not quite puzzled enough to bring out their expensive kit (MRI). They relaxed when they finally came up with a theory: Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo, brought on by a blow to the head. (They especially liked it because it was benign, and I liked it too, only I would have liked it better if they had done the MRI first.) Then they let her go home, because they had no solutions. BPPV is very hard to treat, they noted sadly.

When she was a toddler, and it became clear that she passed out not just because she was hurt but also because she was cross, I asked the doctors what I should do. They shrugged and suggested I try not to upset her.

I don’t think we know a lot about the human brain.

But batteries are quite another matter. I’m thinking of trading mine in for another model.

February 3, 2010

Floating service station

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 7:58 am

We were all running short of diesel, coal, gas and toilet fluid, because first Dusty was stuck in the ice at Duke’s Lock, and then he had to go north to reload his boat.  So everyone was glad to get his text message the other day.

Squirrels are searching out their nuts for a nibble, but you get Dusty’s nuts delivered. Rock on Tues, Thrupp Wed, and Dukes plus Oxford Thurs/Fri. You don’t need to nibble at my nuts – buy them by the bag.

Yesterday evening around half past five a bell jingled, a boat tied up alongside me, and I went out to greet Dusty. 

He loaded eight bags of coal onto my roof (that should do me for a fortnight), and then stepping onto Pangolin, filled the tank with diesel.

One hundred and sixty kilograms of coal, ninety litres of diesel and a litre of “green” toilet fluid was £148.50. 

Pangolin was his last call that day.  Dusty went through the lock and, not wanting to risk the river at night, moored up just by the bridge where the Cherwell flows into the canal and rushes south towards Oxford.

Dusty watches as Pangolin's fuel tank fills.

Dusty watches as Pangolin’s fuel tank fills.

February 1, 2010

Blogging for beginners part 2 (post 101)

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 5:16 pm

My elder daughter tells me I gave up on Twitter too soon.  People get interested in your life, she says, if you just keep going. 

That’s probably good advice for blogging too, and for life in general.  Success is mostly about showing up.  I admire those like Ruth who always have ideas and themes and structure.  When I don’t manage, and then say nothing at all, later it seems to me that I should have at least mentioned what I ate for lunch.

So here’s the latest on my life, in case you got interested:

Last night I tucked my radio under the bedclothes and listened to the late night news.  Recaps of Andy Murray’s defeat in Australia were interrupted outside my window by a swan calling for her lover, a lone, mournful sound.

The fire must have gone out soon after I closed down the dampers, judging by the unburned coal in the morning and the deep chill on the boat.  There was a dusting of snow outside, and my indoor basil plant was stone, cold dead.  I guess I shut the stove down too tight, trying to conserve coal.  I needed the remnants of the last bag to keep me warm one more day.

I’ve got porthole covers on all the windows in the back part of the boat, but I still feel vaguely public when I linger under the covers past 7 or 8 o’clock.  No one can see me, but their footsteps along the tow path, right by my windows, make me feel slovenly.

Eventually I dressed under the covers, and though I thought I was very careful, wore my knickers inside out all day long. 

Once I got the fire going again, I spent the morning finally filling in the insurance form detailing what was stolen when the boat was burgled while I was away.  The only thing I really cared about was the iPod my ex husband bought me the first Christmas we were friendly again.  He had my name engraved on it.

I spent the afternoon dealing with British Waterways who were refusing to license the boat because they insisted it had no safety certificate, though I sent them proof a whole year ago and wrote about it here.

And I am sorry to disappoint you after all that build up, but I didn’t exactly eat lunch, unless a grumpy grande latte counts (grumpy is another story).  So when I got back to Pangolin after sending faxes and making phone calls and all, I was awfully hungry and still cold. I spread chicken fat on bread, poured myself a glass of wine and heaped about ton of coal on the stove.

The chicken fat is because I was Jewish in another life, and the wine is because I am middle class and anxious and all middle class anxious Brits guzzle wine like they have two livers.  The coal is because this is the room of my own. 

I opened up all the draughts on the stove and let it get really, really hot.  Dusty is coming tomorrow so tonight I can be as profligate as I like. 

I also let the engine run for a really, really long time, because the engine charges my batteries and that means my computer will run without alarms screaming.  The engine also heats the water to lovely internal combustion hot, and in a few minutes I can get into my teeny tiny steamy boaty bath and then to bed.

I hope the fire stays in.  I hope the swan finds her mate.

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