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.


  1. You lead a most interesting life.

    Comment by Janie — December 20, 2010 @ 5:05 pm

  2. Just popped by to say “hullo” having found you via Barret Bonden’s blog. Glad I came. Put this post into mediaeval English and it could be Chaucer!

    Comment by Avus — December 21, 2010 @ 2:25 am

  3. Ashore is normal, on board all bets are off. A land-based toilet is genuinely a convenience; afloat it’s a technical procedure. And there’s this thing with water: it’s possible to run out.

    I came to boats too late to take advantage of what proved to be a latent madness. My brother finally relented and we sailed 33-ft Takista along the South Brittany coast, later north from a marina close to Bilbao to La Rochelle. The nearness of the sea sang siren songs. I was comfortably off, capable of buying a boat but I was also seventy. A candidate for the marine version of Fiddler’s Green.

    And I, like you, filled the water tank, that otherwise unseen container forming part of the keel. On land the source of water is to all intents and purposes abstract, on Takista it helped define our existence. Nothing apocalyptic about connecting the hose and sticking the other end through an orifice that resembled a reinforced porthole. Just a task. But life on board is a linear string of tasks and I enjoyed reading about your tasks accomplished. Moving the boat on your own, flouting the legalities of water points, coming to terms with a new sensation – ice, clearing the prop.

    All of which is camouflage for what I was really doing. You write well, very well. This is not intended as a compliment, it’s a fact. And since good writing is never accidental you will be just as aware as I am about the quality of your stuff. There are no pyrotechnics and so I had to dig just a little deeper. You have a rare disdain for adjectives unless they are vital to understanding, but you probably picked that up in grade school. You employ a deliberately limited vocabulary, and that’s a tough row to hoe: hey, I’ve absorbed all these giddy jewels and now I’m told I mustn’t adorn myself with them.

    But perhaps the thing that’s hardest to acquire (and to define) is what goes on in the gaps between paras – the invisible lengths of twine that pull the reader on, often to an unexpected destination. I’ll call it creative shock. Here’s a good example:

    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 don’t have to tell you that the second sentence falls off a cliff that the first sentence erects. Intentionally.

    But what I do now have to tell you is what I’m up to. There’s a strong chance that you’ll see all this as patronising. For all I know (and there’s plenty of evidence to support it) you may earn your living from writing. In which case I’m the platitude from out of space. My defence is that good writing is rare in the blogosphere, I recognised your ability in the first sentence of your first comment to Works Well, and my tendency is to sniff around the hind quarters of people who can write. However if I sound rather too pre-emptive let me know and I’ll take my muzzle elsewhere.

    Comment by Barrett Bonden — December 21, 2010 @ 8:59 am

  4. Janie — I am glad you think so.

    Avus — Thanks for visiting.

    BB — I do not get so many compliments (or, as you would have it, facts) to be inclined to find them patronising. Your muzzle is very welcome here.

    Comment by Duchess — December 21, 2010 @ 2:40 pm

  5. Hummm – I’m a little concerned about the little girl and her Dad. Although you must be careful these days, one would think they’d have been offered a nights stay and kept an eye on because, well, because it’s wise.

    Have been reading your blog (along with your Mum’s) since you all used to comment on OGP’s blog).

    Kate (from NY)

    Comment by kate & Jim — December 21, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

  6. Well done on your solo water dash. I suspect I’d be completely useless on a boat (not to mention uncomfortably tall).

    Re the local pub life, sounds like a latter-day Dickens!

    Sad about man who lost his son and then his wife. I wonder if his wife is sitting in a pub somewhere drowning her own sorrows.

    Comment by The Poet Laura-eate — December 23, 2010 @ 1:17 am

  7. Glad to see you back, I enjoy your writing.

    Comment by Marion — December 24, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

  8. Merry Christmas, Duchess! So glad you got water just in time, it seems. My relatives in the UK are stranded in various ways because of the snow. But none of them live on A BOAT! Good luck to you and better weather ahead….M.E.

    Comment by M.E. — December 25, 2010 @ 3:28 pm

  9. What a wonderful post. I am now frightened of ever going to the hospital for gall stones.

    Comment by Ruth Pennebaker — December 27, 2010 @ 1:58 pm

  10. yes, a joy to read. Oddly, I had gotten back on Twitter today, which is a very off-again enterprise for me, and you were “suggested” as someone to follow, and so here I am.

    Comment by tut-tut — January 2, 2011 @ 2:26 pm

  11. As I was reading your post, I was thinking, “Wow, you lead a very interesting life.” And then the first comment was Janie saying the same thing. We are sisters from another mister so that doesn’t really surprise me but now I can’t think of anything else to say. :-) You really do lead an extraordinary life, Duchess. By comparison, my seems dull and well….dull.

    Comment by Smart Mouth Broad — January 2, 2011 @ 5:21 pm

  12. Late to arrive but lost in admiration. Life on the cut – fascinating to read and beautifully rendered.

    If your folks are visiting this year and you’re not too far from my bit of the Grand Union, I’m determined to make the journey. Health, warmth and steady going for the New Year, Duchess.

    Comment by Dick — January 4, 2011 @ 12:30 am

  13. Kate — I worried about the little girl and her Dad too, but no one was offered a night’s stay in our local pub — sign of the times, I suppose.

    Thank you for visiting my blog.

    Comment by Duchess — January 4, 2011 @ 2:21 pm

  14. I echo Avus’ thoughts! (But I maybe biased). I have a lttle experience with Narrow boats and I send you my heartfelt congratulations for setting out and getting your water!

    Hope you are keeping toasty warm on board.

    Comment by herhimnbryn — January 5, 2011 @ 3:37 am

  15. BB has said all that I would have said about this post and said it much better. All I can add is that it contains for me one of the best evocations of English pub conversation that I have ever read. The scene it describes could have taken place in no other country. Yes, it does recall Chaucer.

    Comment by Joe Hyam — January 5, 2011 @ 4:14 am

  16. I really wish I could be informed when you post. This was far too good to miss and I am very glad you came over to remind me of your continued colourful existence.

    Your boating community is not so different from our village community, nothing remains hidden. It also means, of course, that you will find help when you need it.

    I hate nosey neighbours but they do have their uses.

    Brilliant pub conversations; only in England, you know.

    Comment by friko — January 12, 2011 @ 11:48 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

CommentLuv badge

Freely hosted by Powered by WordPress. Theme by H P Nadig