Long delayed winter has finally come, and the fire is the o
ne 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.