April 7, 2009

Along the tow path

Filed under: A long way from home,Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:36 pm

When I am on the canal I usually sit in what’s traditionally called the saloon, almost at the front of the 62 foot long boat.  There are two chairs, and I occupy both, moving from one to the other depending on the fierceness of the fire and the strength of the cold outside.  From one chair my toes can reach the cast iron stove, where there’s a mark matching the melted tread of my slipper.

On Saturday evenings I burn candles, stew a chicken and watch a bit of tele.  When I was at school, impossible as it sounds now, the clever girls did Latin and the dim ones did physics.  The tele is dim and prefers volts and amps to ablatives and gerunds, but because I am clever I don’t know how to give it what it wants.  It splutters in and out of life. 

I watch a show in which people have brought ugly stuff from their attics to a place where antique experts will tell them what it is worth.  It’s the credit crunch and that’s the only kind of tele the BBC can afford.  At exactly the moment when the expert says, You will be surprised to learn that on the open market this item would fetch…  my tele demands more amps (or volts; I don’t know which because I am clever) and it turns off.

I’d had enough of this last Saturday so I grabbed my torch (that’s a flashlight to you North Americans) and trundled up the towpath to the pub.  I knew Stematos, the Greek landlord, and his apple-cheeked British wife would be glad of my custom.  That is, I knew Stematos would be glad.   Apple-cheeked is not at all clear that I am worth the bother. 

As I have written before, I have more than once fallen foul of the 3 o’clock Baguette Watershed, meaning no foreign muck after that hour, but she might just stretch to a slice of ham between two nicely buttered slabs of honest British bread, if I ask especially apologetically. 

The pub is about a quarter of a mile along the towpath and over the bridge, but I didn’t make it that far. As I reached the bridge I saw that a group of boaters had gathered around a bonfire.  I took a spare seat and someone passed me a glass of wine.  Faintly acrid smoke, smelling of burning creosote, drifted past me and across the canal.  At my back I could feel the night, cold and clear, but the bright heat of the flames drew us all in, and we were warm and merry.

I had seen in the new year around a bonfire with much the same crowd: people whose last names I don’t know, who are called after their boats or creatures of the canal.  The bonfire shone on shaved-headed Ratty, my first friend along the towpath; purple-haired, Emma, my near neighbour; Pat the engineer; Mar who put an axe through his foot last week chopping wood and Scotty who has to go to parenting classes on Tuesdays or else he won’t be allowed to visit his wee babby. 

Because I used to walk a toy poople along the towpath, I have also had occasion to mention the scary dogs some of my neighbours keep.  My poodle has emigrated, and the uneasy peace along the tow path, and in the pub, is breached a little less often.  We are all still variously lame, divorced, pierced, tattooed, out to lunch or gone fishiing, TV license fee evaders every one.  I am fast catching up with the others, a connoisseur of scrounged bonfires: I favour picnic tables.

Nevertheless, it still feels a little odd to find my fifty-five year old self alone in this company on a March evening in England getting drunk under Bridge 216a and warming my toes on burning fence posts.  When I was a kid there was a joke (I think it was from Maine) and the punch line was always, You can’t get there from here. 

Turns out you can.


  1. I wish I could grab a torch, walk along a path, and find a bonfire or pub. Sounds wonderful.

    Comment by Pseudo — April 7, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

  2. I think this is the best post I’ve ever read of yours. I could see and feel everything you wrote about! Wonderful!

    Comment by Twenty Four At Heart — April 7, 2009 @ 8:28 pm

  3. Is this your wonderfully expressive and educated way of telling us you live in an aquatic trailer park?

    Comment by Jan — April 8, 2009 @ 5:37 am

  4. But what an adventure. Not many of us can say we live our lives with such abandon and are doing what we want to be doing, which is seems……you are.

    Comment by Midlife Slices — April 8, 2009 @ 7:54 am

  5. Oh, Jan, it is even worse than you think. I only ASPIRE to the aquatic trailer park. My boat isn’t even legal, now that April’s here.

    At any moment I can be thrown out of the trailer park.

    MLS – Yes, it is an adventure. I don’t suppose I ever imagined such a life – which is rather what I was saying – but narrowboats – mine is 62 feet long and 6.5 feet wide – are uniquely British, and I kind of wanted to see that life. It ain’t perfect. It’s a little lonely.

    Pseudo – I wish I could go barefoot with my little red wagon and feed the cats in a tropical paradise. We always see the best parts of other people’s lives.

    Twenty-four – I thought this post was a little “writerly” and that was a fault. In fact it was composed for a writing class, one of my various vain attempts at rigour, so I pulled out all the stops and actually threw in a few adjectives (usually an anathema). Mostly I prefer my more casual, chatty (= too much red wine) style. But I’m also glad to know that when I go for writerly, someone notices.

    Comment by Duchess — April 8, 2009 @ 2:44 pm

  6. Oh, to be on the cut now that April’s here. With the kids on maximum voltage (I won’t try to explain how that works) in a small house, a little solitude with only a 3-cylinder Lister diesel behind and 60+ foot before sounds luxurious. Happy days, Duchess.

    Comment by Dick — April 9, 2009 @ 10:04 am

  7. You’re living the life we all aspire to. I feel like I’ve had my bedtime story and now it’s time for cookies and milk. Or brandy.

    Comment by Smart Mouth Broad — April 13, 2009 @ 8:14 pm

  8. I never really aspired to the wild gypsy life. When all my friends went off to Katmandu, I needed to know I would have clean bathrooms and stayed home. But the whiff of Wind in the Willows is too much to bear in these posts, and I admit that, like everybody else, I envy you the freedom—even though I know I would be edging away from the guy with the tattoos. Btw, in the single-sex education that I suffered, the choice was between Latin and Domestic Science. Guess which one I took.

    Comment by Tessa — April 17, 2009 @ 4:27 pm

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