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Memories of a Canal Boater [J.Peters : Part 5]

by Bournemouth Libraries

Contributed by 
Bournemouth Libraries
People in story: 
Mrs Jean Peters
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 May 2005

Kay wanted a motor cabin to herself and also to be captain of a crew. My friend Wendy also on her first training trip with another trainer. It seemed just right. I liked Kay and felt we’d probably get on all right, it solved the problem of who we were going to work with. Miranda, of whom I was still a little in awe and certainly hardly knew, was going off with someone called Nora. “Only one trip” reassured Kit. It seemed Nora was a very poor boater and could never keep a crew. Miranda didn’t look very happy about it. But whistling around, the willowed bends of the Willow Pound, it seemed all my troubles were over. The breeze blew, the trees went silver and the water slapped. I suddenly remembered Bob and realised I hadn’t thought of him at all for quite a long time — anyway I was going home soon. I might even see him much better than abstract though! Heaven itself was a small thing! He went down the Paddington Arm and unloaded at Glaxo — a filthy job with a grab. I was reminded repressibly of Bill the Lizard out of Alice. The little man in the crane kept saying “Bill here, Bill no, here. I can’t move the crane all over for you — what’s that? Can’t hear, up here, it’s the wind — you bloody well keep it where it is — what? — what difference does it make to you anyway?” The poor little main in our boat, a very hen pecked type, kept making wild attempts by gesticulating to point out what he did want — all quite hopelessly and helplessly. He swept the coal out of the side sheets with a hand brush and out of the boat with a broom. That night it being Kay’s last night with Kit at the end of her second training trip, we all went to the local pub. A vast suburban pub that I didn’t really like. Kit bought me a sherry and I sat and watched the people, the other three played darts with cockney partners very gaily. I liked the friendly atmosphere but was surprised at the poverty of the people in comparison with the surroundings. I hated the beer slopped on the wooden tables and the smell of sweat from some of the customers and went home before they did. Kay came back and we both felt flat and rather miserable. Kay talked of Jeffrey who should have been getting a divorce from his wife and who wasn’t and with whom she had already lived with for two years. I got a sort of ache in my chest. I knew what that was and went to sleep cross with everything. Next day we finished unloading and empty and tidy we whistled off for Hayes and the depot. The breeze, the sun and the clouds chasing each other across the sky — our spirits soared and I packed my things ready to bolt as soon as we arrived. We were finished by 4pm. Feeling rather odd in my travelling clothes, I walked down the lay-by — conversation stopped in the little groups as one went past and I was conscious of not being a “boater”. One’s clothes and appearance made so much difference to whether or not one was accepted! On the train I felt dirty and “interesting” but once home after a day or so I realised I felt just the same, although it seemed I must be different! I wasn’t, most peculiar!

The Second Training Trip

I went back to the cut regretfully, leave had been good. But I was going back to work with my friend Wendy who was a friend from my Art School days. It was her idea to go on the canals in the first place and I decided we would have fun working together. It would also be interesting to see how her training trip with Daphne Frend another trainer had gone. In what ways it had differed from ours with Kit. The cabin was already well inhabited by Wendy I thought — when I eventually found our motor having her engine overhauled, rugs on the seats cushions and photographs. I packed my things away. Wendy landed tightly on the roof “Jean!” We had not seen each other for nearly a year, not since Wendy’s nervous breakdown. There was so much to talk about. It was really grand. Suddenly Kay appeared looking very clean and glamorous — quite a stranger. Wendy and Kay liked each other immediately — we were astounded to hear Kay was leaving to get married — Who!!!” “Well a commando named Pat that I met on the train.” They had fallen for each other just like that! Something inside me said “that was a bit quick!” But I kicked myself for a cat, who was I to talk! Kay was returning next trip and was keen that as her prospective crew we should learn as much as possible to make up for her lack of a third trip. All was enthusiasm. I decided to make a notebook of the trip as soon as possible. Miranda was also in town and ensconced with Nora sharing her cabin. She had brought back a very sweet little dachshund puppy and was busy teaching it cabin manners. The third of their crew was a tall Irish girl with long straight golden hair and an exceptionally beautiful face as of Botticelli’s Venusin some lights and just plain ugly in others, most odd. She had a glorious soft Irish accent, Susan Blood. Nora herself looked masculine with her square cut face and brown curly short hair and a soldier’s jacket. But there was a disarming kindness on her blue eyes and I wondered — why all the fuss? Later in the evening I chopped wood on the cabin roof and extraordinary girl called MayFlood appeared. Golden curls, bright blue eyes and very red tanned skin. She seemed very excitable, talked volubly and turned out to be one of Wendy’s former companions. I had heard a rumour that Billie their third crew member was very excitable — a rough tough girl and I began to wonder exactly what Wendy had been through on her first trip. It sounded like the Marx Brothers. Next day after meeting the third crew member a very quiet spinster type of forty, pale blue eyes that were very direct and a pair of riding breeches that she wore faithfully the entire time.

Vera, Wendy, Kit and I went over to listen to a radio broadcast of a canal programme in Frankey’s cabin. I knew Kay detested Frankie as a bully — she was also a trainer and had a mate called Christian an art student which interested me as a fellow student. Frankie was enormous and very vigorous she had a great admiration for Kit and sense of humour at awkward moments. Her ancestry was half Mexican and half French, she was handsome and exotic and blatant way with her heavy black fringe, her almond shaped brown eyes, her freckles, brown skin and powerful arms. A scarlet scarf round her throat and white shirt, dark shorts, a husky compelling voice and a throaty attractive laugh. Both were dirty although their cabin was spotless. Christian was quiet, also dark fringed with dreamy wide blue eyes and neat features. I liked her. We all had a lively argument on art after the radio programme, great fun. Franky, talking of Augustas John and Graham Sutherland in easy tones of familiarity. We went to bed, tired but happy and overslept completely till Kit called us at seven. Whereon, we rushed into clothes and had to eat our breakfast after the first lot of locks. I saw Miranda again at the docks and heard she had fallen in and been fished out by Nora. The docks thrilled me stiff as usual. It’s the excitement of coming down into the world of ocean going liners and feeling the link with the world beyond, being part of it, a working part as a spectator never can be. I wanted to draw but there was no time. I became aware of George Smith yelling at me at one point — a tall handsome young boater waving a coil of rope — he was just feeling cheerful. I was furious with myself for blushing scarlet. He laughed, although I am sure of that he was oblivious, I cursed myself for a fool. We toiled back up the locks, loaded with steel again and into Hayes two days after our start from the docks. There we were astonished to see Kit introduced to an American by Mr Curtiss our enormous boss. The American we eye’d with distrust. He was ugly but attractive. Had a graceful figure like a young panther easy and supply. He also carried a camera, we felt resentful. Kit informed us, he was coming with us for four days and would sleep on the steel. We went on after ‘Jeff’ had settled himself in. It was quite impossible to dislike him. He was cheerful and friendly getting us to do scatty things with ropes and jumping off to take the boats at odd angles from bridges etc. He worked too, taking a windless and doing his damnedest to the paddles. By evening Jeff was ‘in’. The next day I went in a silvery mist to lockwheel. I lay on the lock gates watching with fascination the bows of a boat slide into a lock under the bridge. The engine beating softly, the bows parting the water into arrow shaped ripples on either side. Sometimes everything about boats has an exquisite rhythm and beauty entirely incompatible with their bulk. We were locked up at North Church on the summit due to low pounds. There is a spring, there were the water from the lower stretches of canal is pumped up to the high pounds. The spring is crystal clear and pure. We washed ourselves and everything in it and hung clothes to dry in skatty rows from a clothes line between shafts. Jeff photographed and photographed and cursed the English weather and the fitful sun. Eventually he had to leave us to catch his train back to his unit. We were very sorry to see him go, all of us. There was a gap for some time. Wendy and I went for a long walk and Wendy was rather silent, she and Jeff had fitted as people do sometimes. Next morning, the water was translucent and green one could see everything on the canal bed, the only time I’ve ever seen that happen! An odd thing happened the afternoon before when Wendy and I got back from our walk a W.A.A.F and her friend came to look at our boats. Thinking us real boaters, we looked up and I realised she was an old college friend whom I hadn’t seen for years. They drank tea with us and went away — truly an odd coincidence. We went over to Mathas next day. It was truly a golden September and the trees were beginning to turn. The summit with its long wind between trees was lovely, berries trailed from the yellowing leaves. The heat was oppressive and quivering. Wendy and I went into town in the afternoon in Leighton Buzzard to the flicks and out to tea at a very amusing and prim hotel where we ate polite cakes and giggled about the possible reaction of the surrounding “polite” people to the announcement that we were bargees! Later that evening we sat on an open hillside gazing at the sky and talked of deeper subjects. I can’t remember what we talked about but we wandered back to the boats slowly and silently as those who have unburdened their thoughts are apt to. Next day we went on and as we went on things began to go wrong. Ropes broke and went in the blades, we jammed in locks, things went overboard and nearly always it was Wendy who was somehow involved. She began to worry about it and Kit talked seriously to me. “Second trip, must improve or I shall have to throw her out — she doesn’t seem to care”. It was difficult, Vera and I had our hands full with our own troubles. Kit talked to Wendy and for two days there was astounding improvement but I noticed she wasn’t sleeping well and talked in her sleep. Anyway I thought “It’s a hangover from last time, take no notice, that’s the best thing”. So I didn’t. But suddenly, the rocket went up. Wendy cooked an exotic lunch one day, it took so long to prepare that she had to go on duty, bang slap, on top of lunch — never the best time. We were on the Oxford canal. Those dire bends, the worst we stuck on good and proper. “Fool!” shrieked Kit. Wendy gave her a long slow look and muttered something in an undertone as she went to get a shaft. For no known reason my hackles rose like a scared dog and Kit realising perhaps that she had said something wrong was very kindly. We went lock after lock.

Wendy was in an incomprehensible mood and talked of great troubles and what one should do and I not knowing what she was getting at, avoided direct answers. When eventually we tied up for lunch below Hatton she was odd and kept staring at me and muttering again. I thought “Don’t be a fool, it’s over-tiredness” and tried to throw it off. But I couldn’t lose a sense of unreality and that rising hackless feeling of fear. We drank cider from the pub and went up Hatton’s twenty-one locks and on to the “Black Boy” pub tie. She was very strange that night and even Kit noticed it and looked at me oddly. She talked in her sleep and I was too worried now to sleep — I listened and my blood ran cold — things my friend Wendy should never have known or spoken. I lay stiff and silent and prayed. “Bob, oh my Bob — I must have some of your strength and your sanity — Oh God!” Next morning I got hold of Kit on the butty and we talked worriedly. When we got into Tysley docks I felt better but so tired I could have dropped. In the afternoon Wendy seemed keen to go to the Baths. Her skin was so yellow now and her eyes blank and unknowing, she was slowly under my very eyes changing into a stranger. I would almost rather she had died than that.

We went into Birmingham on the tram and she started an uncontrollable giggling. People stared, I cling to Bob — I must be calm and look as if nothing had happened, especially not let Wendy know I knew something was wrong. We went to the Victorian Public Baths we had gone to on our first trip. Wendy talked loudly, hating my publicly and laughed wildly and muttered. I bathed and was so weakly relieved to hear Vera’s voice I could have hugged her. I implored her to stay with us, Wendy after a eulogy on Vera’s stalwart character in comparison with mine — now infamous, agreed to the idea. We went to the flicks — she laughed hysterically and cried and fought off soothing hands. I stand literally dripped sweat throughout the film. How we got home, I don’t know, but we did, Kit was out. Blow one. We got supper and I talked as firmly as I could, Wendy sat and watched with malevolent brooding eyes. I lit the stove with meths and she seized and swung the bottle onto the table and over the straw mattress and lit the proceeds. I put it out with the floor cloth, I was far too surprised to be scared. We ate supper in silence. I thanked my lucky stars for my Log Book and took it up to go over to see Kit suggesting Wendy went to bed in the interval. When I got into see Kit only Vera was there — I just went flat on the bed and laughed it was altogether too much — we talked over what had happened and decided it was definitely a breakdown and finally Kit returned and we explained the position and I went back for the night. It took a lot of time getting Wendy to bed, but she was docile, thank heaven, she just talked and talked the most utter filth I’ve ever heard. When finally we were in bed I weighed my chances of survival till morning and hugged my thoughts of Bob to me. Thank God for his friendship I thought and could never thank him enough for his unwitting help that night.

Next morning we unloaded. Kit suggested Wendy changed to her cabin as a normal part of trip procedure. It rained steadily. Wendy was unanimated. Vera clambered over with all her things. The workmen who knew nothing of all this joked Vera “stand there missy and you’ll get tipped in”. Sure enough next time as she climbed over arms full of clothes, a piece of steel went up like a bird and so did the boat, precipitating Vera like a ton of coals into the “cut”. It was the last straw. Kit dived in and fished Vera and clothes out and we laughed helplessly in the rain while Vera dried herself in my cabin. We went down Camphill next day. Kit said she never expected to lockwheel the Bottom Road with a lunatic. It rained and was filthy and the butty swayed like a sulky cow. But I could have dealt with any number of butties so long as I didn’t have that nameless terror again.

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