January 20, 2012


Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:13 pm

Long delayed winter has finally come, and the fire is the one chore I cannot neglect. Every few days I heave a 25 kg bag of coal from the roof, carry it the 62 ft length of the boat and drag it onto the covered section of the bow. From there I shovel up several scuttlefuls of coal a day, and, kneeling in front of the stove, pull the riddling arm, fast in and out, in and out. When the grate is clear I swap new black nuggets for the dusty, grey ash.

It is my third winter on the boat and the bags feel heavier than they used to. I’m older than most of the people I know living on board, and much older than any solo woman. I hug the coal bags close to my chest, puff out, and count the steps until I drop my load. One day I will remember to ask Dusty to deliver the bags nearer to the front.

Last thing before bed I bank the fire and turn the vents until they are almost closed. The trick is to keep the fire only just alive through the night, so as neither to waste fuel nor to start again from a stony cold stove and a frigid shell. Pangolin, like most narrowboats, is made of steel. The winter is a fight against the frost, and the summer would be intolerable if it ever really arrived.

I was very cold in the night and slept badly. Last winter I piled the bed with two duvets; it’s time to get the second one out.

In the morning the temperature inside, near the fire, is 5 degrees celsius (41 fahrenheit). At the back, where I sleep and dress, it is much, much colder. Outside there is a thin layer of ice on the canal, and the grass and hedges that line the towpath are white with a frost as thick as snow.

While the kettle boils I am back to riddling, now with the stove air vents wide open. By the time my tea brews the indoor temperature has risen to 8.

The forecast is for a few more days of very cold nights, and while it lasts I am rationing water even more closely than coal. At my old mooring I had to move my boat to fill the tanks, but here in Wolvercote we each have our own water tap, and all I need to do is run a hose from the tap to the bow. Lured into carelessness by such ease and the long, warm autumn, I let the tank run low. Now the tap is frozen and I must wait for a thaw. Usually I am an ant sort of person, but this time I was a grasshopper.

A worse grasshopper than I, paddling a canoe from a narrowboat above the lock crunched through the ice. It looked, and sounded, like hard work. From the half dozen empty plastic water butts he carried I knew where he was headed.

The canoe returned not long after with the water bottles full, so I know that the communal tap below the lift bridge is still running. Meanwhile I am not yet desperate, and I excuse the dishes piling up in my sink.

Far away, the English cricket team falters, and a letter is leaked to a newspaper: the Secretary of State for Education thinks the nation should buy Her Majesty a new yacht to mark her Diamond Jubilee.

The sun shines. It’s our north Atlantic tradeoff — we can have it wet and mild or dry and cold.

I run the engine most nights, but because the domestic battery monitor shows good charge, forgetting that the dodgy starter battery will hate the deep freeze, I decide to save on diesel.

I should have known that in the morning the engine wouldn’t turn over.

I am impressed by how calm I am, since if the engine won’t start I will soon have no electricity at all. I decide to rest the battery for a few hours and then try again, making sure to give it plenty of glow plug (I guess it warms the diesel, but I think of it like the choke we used to give cars).

The barometer is falling and the wind is changing direction.

The outside water tap was still frozen in the morning, but by afternoon I get a dribble from it. I unroll the hose and chunks of ice fall off the coils. An hour later the drip becomes full flow.

As the tank fills, I fetch my jumper cables from the car; I watched the young archaeologist connect the domestic batteries to the starter and jump the engine after new year, and I am ready to manage it myself, without help, but when I try the starter battery one last time it reluctantly springs to life.

I leave the jumper cable stored in the engine room. The battery won’t hold out much longer.

Meanwhile, I notice that the elsan — the toilet emptying point just past the lift bridge to the south — is looking sluggish again (I think it cannot be the frost, because it is already noticeably warmer), so I race to empty my shit suitcase before the elsan is totally blocked.

Now, besides rationing diesel, electricity, water, and coal, I consider my bodily motions. Toilet paper, I decide, is strictly two squares per visit, until the elsan flows freely.

The Prime Minister announces that in these days of austerity it would be inappropriate for the nation to buy the queen a yacht.

In the night I threw off the second duvet, and by morning I hear the soft tap of rain on the roof. The west wind is back, and we have exchanged our sunny, continental frost for the more usual Atlantic, temperate gloom.

I eke the coal out one more day and night. In the morning it will be time to drag another bag from the roof.

January 16, 2012

That powerless feeling

Filed under: Canal,family,misc — Duchess @ 11:53 pm

I arrived back on Pangolin on New Year’s Eve. I had only intended to be away for two or three days, but in the end I was gone a full week. Whenever I started to say it was time for me to go home, someone asked what was for dinner, and all eyes turned to me.

It was alarmingly easy to slide back into jobs I thought I had long ago shed, and once again I found myself in charge of the total nutrition for three overgrown children and an ex husband, along with his mother and uncle, who at the last minute made the almost unheard of announcement that they were joining us for the holidays.

The rules of engagement were particularly complex with the latter two, because they have officially not spoken to me for more than ten years (since I divorced son and nephew) and we exchanged neither gifts nor cards.

Nevertheless, when Uncle Bob stumbled and tore his nonogenarian skin I was elected (by acclaim) to clean and dress the wound.

The cooking, cleaning and nursing fest were over just before the old year was out. My Ex drove his mother and uncle back north. My younger son drove himself south. Five thousand miles away his brother (my eldest) was holding a new baby daughter, born two weeks early, trailing extra festive, tax deductible cheer. My own Baby, still a teenager (just), had already gone back to work in London, which left only my elder daughter.

My car complained of neglect, and barely started, but it cheered up, even if I did not, on the run to Cowley, on the dodgy side of Oxford, where I dropped her for a New Year’s Eve party. Then, all alone for the first time in days, I drove back to Wolvercote, the northest of north Oxford, where my boat is now moored.

It was a remarkably warm night for the dead of winter, and I slid on mud, not ice, along the dark bridleway, over the lift bridge, and past the line of deserted boats to Pangolin. I ducked inside the engine room (too low to stand up with the hatch closed) and stooped to try the ignition key. The engine coughed weakly but refused to turn over. After two or three more tries, I resigned myself to darkness.

Without an engine to recharge the domestic battery bank I couldn’t afford to waste any power. I had already turned off the fridge some weeks before (I keep the milk on the gunnels outside the kitchen window and other chilled provisions in a cool box on the front deck), but no power also meant no indoor water:  drawing water from the tanks requires electricity.

With enough charge left in the domestics I might be able to jump start the engine in the morning. Otherwise, only a borrowed generator or the charge from a passing boat could do the job.

Attentive readers might remember the Young Archaeologists from my old mooring. I had always thought of archaeology as a rather exotic, academic, and mostly foreign profession. Years ago I knew a pushy mother who demanded that her daughter become an archaeologist. At the time I thought the mother was simply insane, but I now know that in the UK planning regulations require that archaeologists give the all-clear to every major building project and many minor ones. It turns out archaeology is a pretty secure job prospect.

Nevertheless, the Young Lady Archaeologist of my boaty acquaintance decided she had quite enough of not finding Roman remains under potential multi-storey carparks and is re-training as a publican. To that end she has a barmaid job about a fifteen minute walk from my new moorings, and she and the Young Gentleman Archaeologist brought the boat south to Oxford, convenient for her holiday hours. I happened to see them as they cruised by. They’re nice kids, young enough to be my children, and he is very handy with electrics.

After I lit the fire and found my head torch, I scrambled in the dark for some more festive clothing, shut up the dog, and strode off down the towpath toward the centre of Wolvercote to a pub I had never visited.

The Young Lady Archaeologist Barmaid was very busy serving drinks and only just had time to promise, while she poured me a glass of wine, to let her boyfriend know my engine wouldn’t start.

It was nearly midnight, and the bar was getting louder. I took my glass and found myself next to the only other person I recognised, a woman who twice each day walked her large German Shepherd dogs along the towpath. At first she had seemed unfriendly: she scowled, and I scowled back, daring her to let her dogs take a shit in front of my boat.

After a month or two, when they didn’t shit and I didn’t shout, we moved on to nodding. Because once or twice recently we had even managed a smile with the nod, I pulled up a chair next to her and her fellow in the pub on New Year’s Eve.

We shook hands and introduced ourselves.

“How are you enjoying Wolvercote?” Jan asked. “Wolvercote is certainly enjoying you,” she added generously. “We love your towpath garden!”

A few minutes later midnight sounded, and I was kissing these people I had only just met.

On New Year’s Day the Young Archaeologist came and and jump-started my boat, and the Scary Dog People waved and grinned extravagantly as they went by.  All is well.

Since it is only just past the first half of January, I hope it is not too late to wish you a happy new year. Apparently we need good wishes, this day of all days. According to the BBC, the middle Monday in January is officially the most depressing day of the year. Apparently we are sorry that Christmas is over (hands up anyone?) while all but winter seems a distant prospect.

Like Shelley, I choose to be more sanguine:

If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?

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