It turned frosty last week, just after I got back from my autumn cruises, and just before the country turned back the clocks, that sad Saturday in late October when British Summer Time gives way to Greenwich Mean, and we know winter is really baring down upon us.
This morning was the coldest so far, with a thick frost outside and ice in all the puddles. I huddled under my two duvets until the sun pouring in the back porthole that I always keep uncovered shamed me into finally getting out of bed.
From the back of Pangolin, where my bed is, I can’t tell whether the fire is still lit — all I know is it’s cold. I try to keep the stove going all night, but it is a delicate balance — burning it low enough so it consumes the fewest nuggets of coal, but not so low that it goes out altogether. The plan is, if I keep the ash pan almost full and the air vents barely open, a fire that seems all but dead at dawn will be summoned back to life the moment it’s needed, though I mustn’t push my luck and lay abed too long.
Last night (hurrah!) I husbanded the fire as I ought, and this morning the routine of brisk riddling, pulling out the ash pan and laying it to cool on the hearth, leaving open the bottom door of the stove to give the fire air was all it needed. By the time the kettle was boiled for tea, the coals were glowing bright red.
On the towpath the local excitement — and sadness — is the cutting of the willow trees on the other side of the canal. The sound of chainsaws let me know they were at it again this morning.
I’d chatted with the woodcutters when they first arrived last week. We’ve got to keep the waterways clear, they said, and I reluctantly agreed they did. On my recent cruise I lost my expensive, tall chimney (foolishly left lying on its side on the roof — you can’t cruise under the low bridges with anything but a stub of a chimney, and tall ones have to be taken down, but I should have put mine safely away). A batch of wayward willow branches stretching low across the canal swept it into the water. A pretty pelargonium went overboard with the chimney.
I chatted to our woodcutters again a few days into their pruning fest. They were eyeing the only willow that seemed to me a problem, one that nearly overhangs a neighbouring boat, and they asked if I knew when that boat owner might be back. They wanted to move the boat, in case the tree fell the wrong way.
That boat’s abandoned, I said. The mooring fees and license are paid, but no one comes. The woodcutters and I agreed, looking it over, it must have been a lovely and well-loved boat. On the roof is a row of wooden planters and ceramic pots, now growing only weeds, and a bag of compost, its plastic faded and degrading, still waiting for new season bulbs. The neatly coiled ropes on front and rear decks are covered in algae and green slime. Black mold makes peering into the windows almost unrevealing, but I can see enough to see that the insides were once carefully fitted out for comfortable cruising.
I’d heard from Dusty, the fuel boater who knows everything, why no one ever came to such a fine boat. It belonged to an elderly couple, and the husband died — I think Dusty said he died suddenly, on a cruise on the Thames, only a few miles from here, but I admit I may have embroidered those details, because someone else told me it was cancer, and slow and expected. Anyway, British Waterways sorted the widow out a mooring, here on the edge of Oxford, such moorings being usually rare, and rarely expensive. This seems to me a typically human face of British Waterways, though it is fashionable to grumble about them.
However it happened, once the husband died, his wife never came back, and their boat, moored next to mine, has been empty, and slowly turning from blue to green, since I moved here.
When I’d told the woodcutters this story, and we’d muttered about how sad it was, and I’d said that no one would ever notice if they moved the boat to cut the tree, and gave them permission to move my boat as well, I went out. I mentioned I might go over the canal when they were done and scrounge some wood, if that was okay. We talked a bit about which sorts of wood burned best and longest, and they loyally championed willow.
I came home to find outside my boat a neatly stacked pile of willow logs, trimmed to just the right size for a boat’s fire, left for me by the woodcutters.
Still, I am sorry for the chopping. It is much more extensive than I had imagined. The tree where kingfishers darted amongst the branches is gone, and the views along the canal are much changed. I know the willows will come back; I hope the kingfishers will.
Speaking of Dusty, he’s due. I’m on his border, one of the last customers he visits before he moors up for the night on the outskirts of Oxford, or one of the first he calls on on his way into town — I never know which it is going to be.
Dusty’s first call is early, and since I haven’t seen him tonight I expect to feel his boat banging up beside mine, and hearing him ring his bell, well before 8 tomorrow morning. He’ll fill my tank with diesel, toss half a dozen bags of coal onto my roof, and leave a bottle of propame gas on the bank, taking away the empty I’ve left for him.
For me, it won’t be the best morning to wake early, as I expect I’ll be cuddled up to the radio all night, like the mid twentieth century wayward child I am, once again listening out for the returns in Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Nevada, Virginia and the rest.
Four years ago I sat up all night with my two younger, almost grown, children at their father’s house in Oxford and drove home alone at six in the morning listening to the words of a victory speech that filled me with extraordinary hope and joy.
This year, a more sensible woman would just go quietly to bed. Whatever, first I’ll drag another 25kg bag of coal from the roof, fill the coal scuttle, stoke the fire, riddle the grail and twiddle the knobs; that way, there probably won’t be a disaster in the morning — at least not with the fire.