…on speed. Or rather, not. And manning bilge pumps…
There is a singular beauty to an autumn daybreak on a river, which is why I suppose boating types tend to rise with the sun. The banks, previously emerald, are now bruised with gold and ochre, and the last heads of bullrush stand defiant, like soldiers, even as the teasels taunt and harry them.
But it’s the mist that makes the magic, resting palely on the water’s surface – its wisps weaving blankets for the pond skaters to shelter under, and reaching upwards to sheath the surrounding trees in lemon gauze.
A cow lows and, in the distance, a heron takes noisy flight, its wings beating the heavy air into submission. And everywhere, a lapping, as the boats bob and chunter. The sound of tin kettles whistling. The sweet smell of toast.
One of the great joys of getting older (or so I’ve found, anyway) is the perspective shift that widens the vision. Wisdom, of a kind. An ability to empathise. The relative ease with which you can see the bigger picture.
And one of the greater joys of ageing – and this is well documented nowadays – is the cheerfully unconscious application of selective memory. Rose-tinted glasses are why we prefix ‘old days’ with ‘good’, and much more often (given mangles and child labour and ducking stools) than is probably warranted.
As you might have deduced, I’m currently writing from aboard a boat. A narrowboat, more specifically, currently moored against a reedy bank somewhere in Wiltshire, where a few off-road blackberries, tangled prettily among the spikes, are literally within plucking distance of my hand.
As you might also have deduced, given the tone of those opening paragraphs, the application of selective memory vis a vis my mood when I wrote them showed it not to be terribly selective after all. Narrowboating seemed – still seems – every bit as otherworldly and pleasing as I remember.
And I remember it fondly. 1976, it was, along the Grand Union Canal. A trip in which the teenage party girl (this being a boat full of Venture Scouts) even then vied – and, in large part, won the battle for supremacy – with the romantic poet I half-saw myself to be.
Not so now. It’s precisely two forty two in the morning and all romantic notions have long since jumped ship. I know this because, praise be to Triton and Neptune, I have my trusty kindle, the only light in the thicketty blackness.
Pete is beside me. Way, way, WAY too close beside me, having taken eighty one and a quarter percent of the scant available space, an admittedly unwitting but still irritating manoeuvre I’m informed by my sister is known as ‘man-spreading’.
On the outside edge of the double bed (where for ‘bed’ read ‘raised platform just under four feet across’) I have no such option. I can spread inwards (both inflammatory and potentially risky, since I shotgunned the escape zone on spurious menopausal grounds) or spread outwards, where I would land on floor.
Pete, meanwhile sleeps, seeing patients in his dreams, and intermittently snoring, as per.
In the other ‘bed’ room (where for room read ‘compartment, separated by plywood’) similar privations are being borne by my sister and brother-in-law To be fair, Sherrill doesn’t sleep terribly well at the best of times, but, on the assumption that, as the tiny one, and being tired from an hour’s run, she could accept the wall-zone (where for wall read ‘edge of the boat’) curl up and be out like the proverbial light, already high on engine fumes and joy de vivre.
Sadly not. Being teeny she was soon wedged (see earlier curt note on ‘manspreading’) beneath the ridge that on the outside of the boat forms a deck rail, bound on three sides by an 1970s style antique-pine coffin, and, on the fourth, by a slumbering bear.
She took the only route available – a borderline hysterical but of necessity,silent shuffle (slumbering bears can be cranky when woken) to the end of the ‘bed’, through the door to the ‘salon’, there to curl up on the ‘sofa’, corralled by my bike. And here she slept, fitfully, till the sun rose an hour later, with just the automatic bilge pump for company.
And so we’ve reconvened, on another bright, perfect morning, swans gliding past, their cygnets big as gulls now, and once again feeling blissed-out in our bucolic idyll. But I thought, and I said, what I’d so conveniently forgotten.
THAT’S why boaters get up at frigging dawn.
First published in the Western Mail Weekend Magazine 12th September 2015