December 20, 2010

Okay, fine, as long as I don’t have to play the Wife of Bath

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:39 pm

The intense cold that descended mid November let up a week or so ago, and the layer of ice on the canal thinned enough to make navigation possible. The towpath rumour that Narrowboat Helene of Troy would be barging through on Sunday turned out to be true, though the temperature still hovered around freezing: shards of ice, cut and scattered in the narrowboat’s wake, were gently frozen in place by last Monday morning, and the canal had a sharp, dangerous look.

Nevertheless, the temperature was gradually rising, and Dusty, the fuel boat, announced he was on his way. He reached me on Wednesday morning, topped up my diesel, and tossed 200kg of coal onto my roof. He apologised for being out of propane, but didn’t think he would get any more before mid January.

I said now I had diesel, I was thinking of making a run for water – which meant driving the boat forward about a quarter of a mile, filling up, and reversing back to the mooring. Dusty advised me to go for it. The Met Office was predicting the thaw would be short-lived.

I rarely move the boat on my own, but there was no one I could ask for help on a bitterly cold mid-week December day. My boaty neighbours were all at work; I had offers of help for the next weekend, but the forecasters promised more hard frost by then. My water tanks were nearly drained, and I didn’t think I could take a chance on moving later.

So all by myself I drove up to the water point (which just between you and me and the internet is not exactly a legal water point), tapped my hose into the (not exactly legal) supply, and tanked up. On this short journey I was surprised by how much bother just a little ice could be. Hitting the propeller, icy chunks sent me in quite the wrong direction, and at one point I had to kill the engine, undress to my shirt sleeves and plunge my arm into canal water almost to the shoulder to clear ice from the propeller blades.

When the tanks were full, I untied the ropes and set the boat in reverse. The whole business took about three hours, and just after lunch time I was back on my mooring, without having crashed into anyone’s boat – no small feat, since I have almost no steering in reverse, and there is a sharp bend to negotiate.

By the next morning three of my neighbours – all of whom had been out when I moved the boat – remarked, I hear you got water yesterday. If I had crashed any boats, everyone would have known.

The canal stayed navigable for another day or two. One boat moved north and two more headed south, following Dusty. The swan pair visited, begging for bread, but by Friday a new layer of ice meant they could no longer swim to my kitchen window.

It started snowing early Saturday morning and didn’t stop until after dark. In the evening, with snow higher than my mid-calf boots, I trudged up to the pub where many of my neighbours had already gathered. The Landlord said, I hear you got water the other day.

The three divorced men from the marina, each living on their separate boats, were all there. I hadn’t seen the saddest one for months; his only son died in a car crash a year or so ago, and then he and his wife didn’t feel the same about things any more, at least not about each other, and finally he thought he would just get a boat. He cried when he told me the story, and then, because I cried too, he bought me a drink. I’m sorry, he said, wiping his eyes.

The butcher who delivers meat to the pub got his van stuck heading out of the car park and came in to order dinner. Scanning the menu on the blackboard, and negotiating rescue over his phone, he confessed he fancied something vegetarian.

The young archaeologists from the squatting boat by the bridge arrived, brushing off snow, and told the story of how they’d helped push a stranded ambulance back onto the road.

Two Polish young women driving a mini wandered in. They had been hired to cater a wedding nearby, but their car got stuck on the hill by the pub. Oh, the wedding’s off, the girls replied to our muttered concern. We just want to get back to Oxford.

The conversation turned to the Morris Dancing troupe who phoned to cancel their appearance because of the snow. One of the locals tore down their grainy, home-printed poster advertising the gig.

She pointed out one of the key dancers pictured on the left of the poster. She is a big girl, fair enough, my boating friend said. Not been well. For months she thought she had some kind of stomach problem.

Irritable Bowel What’s It, another boater offered.

That’s it, my friend said. So she kept drinking and dancing, dancing and drinking, pints and pints, because she didn’t know. After a while, the doctors said it must be gallstones. And one night she went to the Emergency Room with really bad gall stones and came home with a baby boy.

She was a big girl, fair enough, everyone in the pub agreed. She didn’t know.

After I left, just as the pub was about to close, I’m told a child of about 10 or 11 wandered in and asked the Landlord if he did rooms; her father was waiting in a car in the snow outside. The Landlord refused.

Anyway, shrugged Mrs Landlord the next day, they weren’t still there on Sunday morning.

December 6, 2010

After the feast

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:27 pm

Our familiar wind, which usually blows west, damp and mild, across the Atlantic, has swung to the north and east and brings instead arctic cold and Siberian snow. My boat makes odd creaking noises as the gusts rock it against the ice. The canal is frozen.

It is ten days since any boat moved through the lock. Along the towpath we trade weather forecasts and calculations of how long our supplies will last: the man on the squatting boat behind me says he reckons his water and diesel won’t last past tomorrow, and I say my coal supplies will run out next week and I am worried about my water. I think I have another 20 days at least of diesel (to generate electricity), but others are running low already. We are all wondering whether Dusty, the fuel and coal boat, will be able to get through before Christmas.

The days slip away while much of my energy is taken up with keeping the birds fed and myself warm: before breakfast I throw a coat over my PJs and refill the feeders each morning. The birds eat constantly until half past three when the light is already fading. In the spring they wantonly toss the seed about, but now they leave nothing even for the rats that come out at dusk. I’m lonely when the birds are gone.

Every third day I haul a 20kg bag of coal from the roof of the boat to the bow. I fill the scuttle, shovel coal into the fire, riddle the ashes, empty the pan, begin again, many times each day. I don’t, whatever else I neglect, let the fire go out overnight.

The weather turned cold a few days before Thanksgiving and my potential guests began phoning me: Did you really mean to invite us to your boat? And, Just how cold is it on that boat?

I promised them they wouldn’t be cold, and they were not – before dinner I had to throw open the windows – the combination of cooking, the coal fire, and five people on board sent us way beyond cosy.

My cooking facilities are limited and the menu was simple. For the first time in years I didn’t make pumpkin pie, which is always challenging anyway. There used to be a deli in Oxford that stocked Libby’s tinned pumpkin, in strictly limited quantities, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. They kept it behind the counter, and when you asked for it a suspicious sales clerk would inquire, Have you booked? Only if your name was on her list would she hand over the tin. It cost a small fortune.

This year, I made pecan pie instead, which Brits, with their sweet teeth, prefer anyway. Cornbread is another challenge, but after no success at any supermarket within 10 miles of Oxford, I thought of checking a health food store where I found a packet labelled “maize meal”, and duly baked it into something passable, if a little dry.

I cooked the turkey on the barbeque. While I was planning my menu I idly wondered if you could spatchcock a turkey, typed the thought into Google, and found the internet full of advice. My guests were impressed when I told them I had done the spatchcocking (removing the backbone and breaking the rib cage) all by myself. Nevertheless, they (and I) were unconvinced that the turkey (4 and a bit kilograms) could be done in only an hour, so I cooked it another thirty minutes. It was overdone, but at least we all felt confident we wouldn’t wake up with salmonella.

Besides turkey, cornbread, and pecan pie I served sausage and bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts and grated sweet potatoes with sage and garlic butter. With gravy from stock and drippings to cover it all, of course. I forgot to put the turkey liver in the gravy, so I enjoyed that all by myself, panfried in olive oil, a few days later.

With Thanksgiving over, I lurch, already overfed, toward Christmas. The festivities began Saturday with the Boaters’ Christmas Dinner at the pub, a jolly event overshadowed by sad swan news, of which more in a future post (not 3 months from now, I promise!).

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