Length: 251 km / 156 miles
Catchment: ?? km2 / ?? miles2
They approached the lock across still water. No other boats in sight. The gates were closed so they would have to pull in to the bank, secure the boat, and then deal with the lock.
He briefed the crew. The three of them looked very alert indeed. Only one needed to jump ashore with the rope, but it looked as if all three were going to go.
He shouted some helpful advice, “You don’t all need to jump.”
He got some black looks. Apparently they hadn’t sorted out a command hierarchy. Richard finally jumped, but Sarah and Eileen did most of the fending off. The boat bumped gently up against the timber posts.
“Secure fore and aft..”
The boat secured nicely, they went off with the handcranks to the downstream gate. Concrete and stone walkways carry you past the empty lock. It’s a long way down to the bottom. The upstream gates leak. Water gushes through. The algae in the flood zones of the walls is thick and dark. There is a small, single lane, stone hump-backed bridge across the lock just below the lower gate. The traffic flies across as though there were deaths in the family. Even though it’s single lane, there’s an urgency among the motorists to beat the system.
The lower gate is a “knife blade” or “guillotine” one. It has to be wound down by hand. Richard assumed control. Great. Do it Richard. But it takes a lot of puff and he relinquished to Eileen after a while. When the blade was down, Sarah and Robert opened the shutters on the great wooden door gates at the upstream end. The river crashed through - controlled, tamed, utilised by the victorian technology. He loved the smell of aerating water. The lock filled. They were able to open the door gates.
No point mucking about with the engine and a duff gearbox. They simply grabbed the ropes, pushed out the boat, and guided it into the lock.
Close the top gates. Leave enough slack on the securing ropes. Begin to haul up the guillotine gate. Terrific rushing of water again. The boat began to drop.
“Watch out for the ropes,” he hollered, “They must
let out or the boat will settle on one side.”
Sometimes ropes pinch in these situations. Very dramatic. As
the boat turns shore side up, all the crockery, furniture, books, and what have
you begin to crash to the opposite side. With
a heavy boat, the ropes usually give. Some of the plastic boats hang there helplessly until water
is let back into the lock again.
On this occasion Richard was a little too exuberant in winding the downstream gate up. The undertow created by the fast evacuating water at the bottom of the lock began to propel the boat dramatically back towards the upstream end. Robert shouted to him to ease up. Richard mis-heard him and increased his efforts. Robert was the only one on the ropes just at that point and he only had one of those nasty nylon ones. Eileen and Sarah were on the other side of the lock having a natter. The boat began to accelerate towards the back. Robert didn’t have time to wrap around one of the iron cleats. He could only hold on as best he could. The nylon rope cut into his hands as he fought to keep the boat from crashing on the top gate. Eventually the others realised what was happening. Richard stopped his frenetic winding. Sarah and Eileen ran round and grabbed another rope. All three struggled against the force of the undertow, but a little late. The boat crashed, but not too badly, against the top gates. As it came away and lined up for another crash, they caught and held it. Robert noticed his hands were bleeding. That nylon rope. Goes through flesh like molten metal.
The water vented itself. The lock was at its bottom-most. The boat was now a good 12 feet lower than it was. Richard had the lower gate all the way up. Time to get aboard again.
They clambered down the steel rungs sunk into the sides of the lock, past the slippery pungent, newly exposed moss and algae. He started the engine again. They waited about twenty minutes; then - clunk. The gear box engaged. The Kier Hardie eased out into the deep water below the lock. You always experience a sense of relief when you clear a lock. You’ve suddenly got wider horizons, more room to manouvre, more light. The crew was smiling again.
The next stretch is a little narrow by Ouse standards, but very navigable. Then it broadens out magnificently. The Great Ouse in all its glory. Farmland and trees; railways and roads. The occasional overhead power line. But always the river bank with it’s infinite complexities; always ebbing and flowing with the river as each boat goes by.
Sarah came back and took the helm. He offered her a bit of tutelage, but it didn’t take much. She talked about Eileen’s little girl. A custody battle had broken out between Eileen and her ex-husband/boyfriend. Eileen was not in a good position to defend. Apart from her sexual status, there was also the matter of her unemployment and her diagnosis as being HIV positive. Sarah had no offspring herself, but she was very caught up with Eileen’s battle.
He had known Sarah when she was still into men (although, sadly, not into him). He’d always had a profound respect for her capacity to immerse herself in things. One day she had decided that relationships with men were just too depressing. She set about exploring women. She said her first night with another woman was delirious. She had been absolutely transported. She never looked back. But he couldn’t help always feeling a little as though he missed her, even when she was standing right there next to him.
He left her in charge, “Just stick to the right if another boat comes” and went up to the halfway hatch and clambered into the galley and put the kettle on. Inside, the engine throbs and so do the walls. He loved to lean out of the hatch when someone else was at the helm. Effectively, his legs were below water level as he leaned. It was such a nice way to experience the river.
He went up front to see if the others wanted tea. It’s so quiet up in the front. The engine is such a long way behind. You can hear the water gurgling and slooshing. Richard was telling Eileen about how sound waves in studios were just like water waves in rivers, and how you had to break them up and create irregularities to avoid resonances. She was nodding politely but clearly elsewhere. They both turned as he asked. They both smiled. They were both having a good time.
The kettle whistled. He made the tea and brought a tray with mugs and biscuits out to the crew. Sarah was still happily steering and Eileen took her tea and biscuits back. She also wanted to learn the navigational basics.
He sat in the front with Richard and his mug of tea. Richard was the kind of guy you have to interrupt. He doesn’t notice when you do; doesn’t take offence, but once you do he’s immediately off on whatever tangent you might have introduced. He was actually very expert in an astonishing variety of things. His knowledge was extraordinarily wide and well founded. But he could not shut up.
Robert assumed Eileen’s nodding role. Richard was explaining that when you plant a tree (yes, he knew Robert had planted getting on for 2000) you have to be sure that the bottom of the hole is well turned over before you lower the tree, and that you have to stamp the earth back really firmly around it. And that you shouldn’t use peat, but that re-cycled coconut matting stuff. Robert was watching the heron. They always do the same thing. They get disturbed by the boat, lumber slowly into the air, flap about 300 yards ahead, stop, and wait for the boat to get close again. Then they do it again. And again. Maybe six or seven times. Then they finally, wearily, gracefully fly high, up and over the trees, and circle back round to where they were when you first saw them - presumably to do exactly the same thing with the next boat that comes along. In the height of summer, they must get no rest at all.
The stretch of river between The Paxtons (Great and Little) and the Clunys (Offord and D’Arcy) are wide and, in parts, dramatically straight. The railway runs next to sections of it. He always felt part of a child’s picture book as he stood In the boat on the river and watched the train rushing alongside. And he was always torn by the wish to be the observer on the train as well as the observer on the boat. He compensated by waving to the pale faces in the windows.
The river narrows and gets a bit more complex just before the Offord Cluny locks. There are weirs to the left and right and some fairly tight bends. At first sight of these Robert moved back to take over navigation. The crew gathered in the bow again in preparation for the lock approach. Very Amazonian along here. Lush, overgrown, reed beds along parts of the banks, large trees leaning over the river. A slightly confusing gaggle of islands adds to the mystery.
A final right hander brings the lock into view. It’s gates are closed so Robert calls out that he is going to head for the mooring platform to the right. He slows as best he can and cuts to neutral. They are coasting in. All alertness on the bows as Sarah prepares to make the jump. Robert readies himself to jump with the stern line. Like a crack team of commandoes, they pull it off beautifully. The boat is hauled in and secured and they head for the lock gate.
Another guillotine style one with handcranking. Richard manfully begins the process as soon as Sarah and Eileen have the lower doors closed. This is a very intimate lock. A house right next door, a tiny single track hump-backed bridge. Everything seems scaled down and almost twee. They pull the boat through, shut the guillotine, release the downstream shutters, and Keir Hardie settles gently down to the level of the next stretch of river.
Out of the Offord lock, the navigator is fooled into thinking more narrow, overgrown river is due. But then it becomes apparent that consumer madness has hit this part of the river particularly badly. There are two marinas on the left. The first is more like a traditional one; looks like a small family business and there are enough older, battered boats about to give character and atmosphere to the term “boating”. The second however is a speculator’s dream come true. Shiny new buildings, manicured lawns, glistening fuel pumps, “chalets” for yachties who really don’t want to endanger their footing. This is the sort of thing Robert and Penny might have had more success with back at Bluefields. This was enterprise at its hustling best and you can bet planning procedures were duly pushed to the absolute extreme here.
The river recovers from this commercial hysteria a bit further on. It bends a bit. The banks look dense with life. Interesting tributaries fork off, marked unnavigable on the maps. Richard is steering. He is in splendid isolation at the stern. The other three are sitting in the bows discussing how Sarah can bear a child. The women wonder about Robert’s seed. They laugh hysterically but then warm to the idea and begin to discuss various techniques of artificial insemination. In his own mind, Robert queries the need for artificiality, but is afraid to give voice. Anyway, he knows the reason.
Just as you see Huntingdon on the horizon, you are actually looking across what is reputed to be the largest flood meadow in the UK. Most of the time it is just a large expanse of low lying rough and pasture, but in the winter floods it is an enormous lake. The Great Ouse is a dramatic sweller in the winter time. All along it are designated meadows which are part of nature’s ancient and the River Authority’s current flood control strategy. Robert had been across the meadow in his canadian canoe many times at peak flooding times. The country is transformed. It begins to look like Scandinavia - especially if there is a bit of snow and ice about.
As they passed sedately by now, though, you would never guess what it could be like. He tried to tell Richard, but Richard didn’t really hear. He was talking about the simple miracle of the differential gear. It was so simple and yet provided such a complicated range of solutions to mechanical power delivery.
There are houses backing on to the river on the right at Godmanchester. Godmanchester is the part of Huntingdon which is actually south of the river. Robert had a pal called John along there and the plan was to tie up and see if he was in. He alerted the crew and took over at the helm.
From a fair ways out, he shifted into neutral. The boat glided smoothly towards the garden wall at the bottom of John’s garden. Eileen leapt for the shore with the rope this time. Very expert. She secured the bow and Robert the stern in on what was left of the momentum. All done very gently. They were all pleased.
We went down the long garden to look for John and his little alkie pal Vince. John had this enormous house from his folks. He ran a strange sort of secondhand furniture operation which ticked over just enough to keep him in food, drink, and dope. And a little bit extra to be generous to the odd people he often had hanging around - ostensibly as employees, but it was never entirely clear. Vince was one of these, a sort of resident poet. A tiny little scotsman, he would read his ramblings at the slightest opportunity. Robert was never in a position to tell if it was any good. All he could remember with any clarity was the night that Vince got really really pissed and had the entire entourage terrified. He was tiny; five and a bit feet. But he had them running every which way. You would have thought he was at list ten feet tall and 400 pounds by the tone of the stories.
On this occasion, they were both sober. John had just come back from the auction with some bits and pieces of furniture. Robert and his crew helped him unload. Vince watched. Robert had never seen him do anything which looked even remotely like work.
Afterward, they all had a light lunch in John’s vast garden. John knew about Robert’s retreat, but didn’t discuss it. He and Vince were obviously interested in Sarah and Eileen.
The boat crew re-boarded and cast off, waving, for the next port of call, Huntingdon, only a quarter of a mile away.
As you leave Godmanchester, you are almost immediately in Huntingdon. The enormous flood meadow is on the left; houses, main road, and a small marina emerge on the right. As you pass the marina, the river swings right and, after the painfully gruesome concrete railway bridge, you are suddenly heading for the magnificent multi-arched medieval bridge which carries the main road over the river and into the town. Five hundred years of crossings for this bridge they reckon. Just beyond is the riverside park with mooring points for passing river traffic.
They moor here. His crew must now depart. They all wondered into town, across the one-way traffic by-pass scheme. The centre is still human scale. A pedestrian precinct. Ancient characterful buildings mixed with modern square blocks where the chain retailers prefer to dwell. Oliver Cromwell’s museum is here. It was also the constituency of good old Major John who was then still a rocketing yes-man in the Thatcher regime - a rising fool in the ship of fools.
They had coffee in one of the cafes and then sorted out logistics. He hugged Sarah and Eileen who left for the bus station. He manfully shook Richard’s hand who was going to hitch back to Bluefields to get his van (Robert’s was already up ahead in St Ives by pre-arrangement). He watched them wander up a side street. Richard was telling them about the exponential increase in mechanical advantage you can derive by adding further wheels to each end of a block and tackle. Sarah and Eileen glanced back and grinned. Robert waved, then turned and headed back towards the river.
That night he slept alone at the quayside.
Early the next morning, he was up and about in the cool, still, misty air. On his own now, he stood half way up towards the front with one foot on the concrete embankment and one foot on the boat waiting for the gearbox to engage. This was going to be a tricky leg.
The gearbox caught and he pushed the bow out into the river and scuttled back to the helm. No other traffic; no problem. The river is wide here and swings past another tiny marina and a dramatic array of weeping willows. Easy navigating past the lazy fallen trees and the unsurprised cows.
At Houghton there is another lock; next to a dramatic and thunderous weir. A foot bridge crosses the lock. He busied himself with preparations for dealing with this one entirely on his own. He’d done it before, but not with such a cantankerous gearbox. Fortunately, the upstream gates were open. He had to judge the distance from slipping into neutral, steer a non-collision course for the side of the lock, and then scramble up to the front, fend off the wall, and then leap up on to the side of the lock, bring the boat to a gentle halt, and lash the ropes on to the posts. So intent was he, that he didn’t notice the two school girls observing from the opposite side. They gave him a start at first. It was still fairly early, a week day, and everybody else should be at work - or at school. He hadn’t expected to see anyone. These two were obviously 6th formers sneaking a fag break. He nodded. They waved. He set about shutting the upstream gates behind the boat, and letting the water out of the downstream ones. He watched the boat slowly settle. The girls watched too, in silence. He finally opened the lower gates, untied the ropes, and jumped down on to the roof of the boat and headed towards the stern. He engaged the gearbox and waited for it to catch. He suddenly realised the two school girls had got up on to the footbridge and were watching him and waiting for the boat to move. He felt a little embarrassed as he stood there waiting for the gearbox. The girls must have thought he was daft. The prop finally caught and the Kier Hardie began to move forward. He glanced up at the girls. To his horror he realised that they were standing with their legs exageratedly well spread. As he was leaving the lock under the bridge, they would be directly overhead. He could already see school girl thigh below smiling, innocent, expectant faces. His own smile froze in confusion and blood rush. The boat advanced sedately. His gaze was locked into theirs. The bottom half of his field of vision was filling with the temptations of flesh. In seconds he would be staring straight up in to their heavenly nethers. Were they ....? He ratcheted his head down, forced it on to the level plane. Staring fixedly ahead, he passed under the bridge and into the river beyond. His neck and body locked, he couldn’t even turn to look back. The blood rushing around his head and coursing through his loins threatened to spill him overboard.
From miles away you can see the spires of St Ives. They disappear, then reappear. Finally, as you round the last stand of trees, they are there, right in front of you. The town looks like towns are supposed to look. Snug, self-contained, fitting meaningfully into its place between the land and the sky. And the river winds towards it like the yellow brick road. This was where his riverside flat was before he moved to Bluefields. He had seen the town from this point of view a thousand times, in all weathers and all seasons. He had series of photo’s which he had taken from carefully selected standpoints at different times of the year. To the right is a flood meadow almost as large as the one in Huntingdon. He’d been across this too in his canadian canoe, and under the arches of the otherwise landlocked causeway connecting the gaggle of buildings on the south side of the river to the London Road conurbation and the Hemmingfords. Some winters, he’d skated across the same expanse. The seasonal changes were enhanced and exaggerated by the unruly river. On the left, before the bridge, is the little “sea scout” island, where children were systematically taught military discipline. Very ramshackle, it was though. The dilapidated air gave it a very welcoming feel when there weren’t cadets there marching up and down.
He often thought he’d been at his happiest living in this town in the flat by the river. He used to sit for hours gazing through the enormous french doors which opened out on to the passing flow. At flood times, the water would creep up and into the garden, inexorably closer to his doors, but never quite made it into the flat.
He kept the canadian canoe at the bottom of the garden and often went out, at any time of the day or night, to paddle up and down this section of the river. Often he would go up river, under the stone bridge, over to and around the sea scout island. Especially in the warm summer nights, it was transcendentaly peaceful.
On this occasion, the occasion of his return, his retreat, his headlong flight from Bluefields there was nothing in the town to welcome him. He passed under the arched stone bridge (even older than the one in Huntingdon), past the shops on the left and his former abode in the rambling block of flats on the right. The whole riverside had been “developed” here. The old sheds had been smashed down and new flats stuffed into every spare square foot of space. It all looked hopelessly tacky. When he lived there, an ongoing battle had been taking place between his gang of idealist supporters of third world development and environmental sensibility and the forces of tackiness as represented by the “normal” flat dwellers in the same block. Alcoholic insurance sales people, the lot of them. As much vision and sense of planetary presence as a herd of goats.
He could hardly bear to look at his old flat as he glided by. Even the ancient trees that stood weeping on the bank, their massive knarled roots exposed but holding the bank intact, had been chopped down. Stupid fuckers.
The other thing they used to have here in the old conglomeration of flats and sheds was a sort of bi-monthly “cabaret club”. This was to raise funds for the third world development trust. They would fix up one of the old sheds with makeshift tables and benches, lay on table clothes and candlesticks, prepare a small stage at one end and a small kitchen and servery at the other. People used to come for miles. The entertainment was pretty amateur. The food was pretty basic. But come evening, with the lights turned low and the candles flickering, with people showing up in formal dress (there was a sort of dress code), and without overbearing music, the evenings were a great success. The general buzz of conversation was the central mood generator.
They were eventually trashed by local alcoholics. Such was the mindset of the local small town yout’ that, instead of getting into the thing and playing along, they presented their stock response. On the penultimate occasion, they got absolutely blutered out of their undemanding minds and endeavoured to crash the party. Fortunately, the party was largely over and the bulk of the guests had gone home, but a bunch of these morons, led by a steel pipe wielding white supremacist, set upon Robert and gave him a severe kicking. Robert was a little alarmed that many of his male “greenie” buddies had scarpered when the going got tough. The women hadn’t scarpered. It was their intervention which had actually saved him. The police eventually showed up and drew the mob away. Robert remembered sitting in the wrecked kitchen afterward, staunching the bloodflow and holding wet towels on his eyes, with a couple of the women. They just said, “Boys will be boys.”
When Jim was finally tracked down - moored off a pub about 6 miles downstream - he begrudgingly agreed to come and look at Robert’s boat. Two days later, he actually appeared - Escargot chugging up to the bottom gates of Mick and Heather’s lock. Little ruddy faced man with non-ingratiating smile and corduroy “Breton” peaked cap on a balding sun-stroked head. He looked wearily up at Robert as the lock raised him and his boat.
“What seems to be the problem then?” He had worked on Penny’s boat and already had a good idea what was wrong.
“Gearbox...” said Robert, “As you might have guessed.”
These were pathetically inadequate german gearboxes bolted on to very powerful Mitsubishi diesels. They were always packing up. As Escargot pulled clear of the top gate, Robert and Mick walked along the bank to where the Keir Hardie was moored. Jim pulled up alongside, lashed up, and clambered on to the narrowboats stern deck. A demonstration showed him the delay problem.
“Have to bring it in the yard and get her out of the water,” he said.
“Jim, I can’t. I just don’t have that kind of money at the moment.”
“Go on Jim,” said Mick. “You can do it here. The yard doesn’t even have to know about it. He’ll pay you cash and do the running around.”
Robert nodded keenly. Jim finally agreed. That had been the basis of his work on Penny’s boat, but he preferred doing things for Penny. She was so much more attractive. He was a bit like Parky; the understanding was that you had to be on hand to chat, listen to stories, and make the tea. Penny had been very good at that.
Robert had taken gearboxes out of vans and trucks, but you can get under those with a jack and crank them up. He was curious to see how Jim was going separate the box from the engine block. Both were crammed right up close to the stern plate in very small engine room. You couldn’t stretch the boat or take the back off. Jim had a cursory look around and said,
“You get hold of a big timber, 4 by 6 and about 6 foot long. Give me a shout when you’ve got it.”
and he got back into his boat and puttered off into the boat yard.
Robert got hold of the timber and tracked Jim down in the workshop at the boatyard. Flames and sparks scattered as Jim finished off his welding. He then grabbed a chain hoist and came away with Robert. Back at the Keir Hardie, he straddled the timber across the hatch above the little engine room. He lashed the chain hoist to the timber and passed the hoisting chain under the back end of the engine block. When Robert brought out the tea and biscuits, Jim had unbolted the rear engine mounts on their massive rubber blocks and loosened the forward ones. He had unbolted the gearbox, and was resting.
Over tea he was telling Robert how he had had to change a narrow boat prop through the weed hatch in the middle of winter. Turned his arms dark blue. As he was talking, Robert eyed the chain hoist arrangement and suddenly realised the perfect simplicity of what Jim was about to do. Jim saw him.
“You get the picture?” he asked, smiling. Robert nodded, full of admiration.
After tea, Jim just pulled on the hoist. Away came the back end of the engine, up into the air, hinging on the front mounting blocks. When it was just high enough, Jim crawled back down and pulled the gearbox forward off the propeller shaft. He passed the entire gearbox unit up to Robert and said,
“Right, now you take that to GB Marine in Staffordshire, get them to fix it, bring it back here, and we’ll slap it back in again.”
What an exquisite pleasure it was to steer with a fully functional gearbox. All kinds of subtle manouvres became possible again. He was manouvreing in the river just off the bank. He turned the boat in a tight circle, and brought it to a standstill in midstream. He engaged forward and nosed up to the bank with just enough instantaneous reverse at the last minute to make contact with a gentle kiss. Jimbo, Mick, and Heather gave him a little round of applause. He pulled back again and steered carefully into the lock, again coming to a standstill without so much as touching the sides. It was miraculous. As Mick opend the lower shutters and the boat sank away from the three of them standing above, Robert looked up with a broad grin. Even Jimbo was pleased now as he saw the joy his labours had wrought.. As the gates opened and Keir Hardie headed out, Robert looked back and waved. Floating down river, watching the waving figures get smaller, he could feel another chapter closing on his life.
At Holywell there’s a big pub by the river. His friend Fiona lived there with her daughter Tanya.. He used to canoe down to visit and help out in the garden. Occasionally they had little get togethers down there. A bunch of the gang from upriver at the St Ives flats would come down in boats and have an evening of food, drink, and musical interchange. Fiona was a brilliant musician, a natural. She had been living for a while with a guy called Geoff, a chinese Malaysian educated in an english public (meaning private) boarding school. Very well spoken chap. The most incredible charmer. A most benevolent host and supping companion. Also a molester and abuser of children as it turned out. Nothing like a private education. He had since moved on.
Robert tied up at the pub river bank and walked across the green and down the road to Fiona’s. Her house looks out over another bit of flood meadow. It’s high up above the road which often floods in winter. Her perfect little house. Low wall and gate with paved path up the front garden to the front door. Very, very nice. He would have been happy to live there himself except all the neighbours are rabid, drinking tories. As it happened, her female “barber shop quartet” was there, psyching up for a rehearsal. Robert sat back and savoured an afternoon of sweet-blending close harmonies.
Later on, Fiona walked him back to his boat. At the pub a bunch of noisy tory alkies were beginning to achieve their ritual euphoria. Robert wanted to take his boat over to the opposite bank for the night. Fiona said, “Go on then, I’ll get my dinghy out and row over for a night cap.”
He had his boat nicely tied to the opposite bank as she turned up in her dinghy and clambered aboard. He made Irish coffees and they sat on deck chairs on the roof of the boat, watching the darkening opposite bank where the pub throng was producing a noise more softened and baffled by the summer evening. She had been telling him about their mutual pal Harry who was a student liaison officer at some north London college and had become a bit of a recluse lately. For her, worryingly so. Calls from the other side of the river began to impinge upon their conversation. It was now quite dark. Lights from the pub flickered on the water. Now there were one or two torches. “Charles, Charles...” someone was calling. There were more muffled voices with a sense of urgency building up. Robert and Fiona stopped talking to listen more closely. Urgent voices were saying, “There he is... No, over there.... Charles, are you allright?”. Suddenly in the middle distance they heard a gutteral voice trying to respond. “Here... (gurgle) Here.... (gurgle) Help, help...” The voice was very low and wasn’t carrying. It was slurring as well as gurgling. Robert suddenly had the erie sensation that he was going to have to get involved. Some piss head had obviusly gone for a swim and last his bearings. A boat was putting out from the other side. “Can you see him? He went in over there.... He couldn’t have gone far.... Charles, Charles....”
“Can you see him?” Robert asked Fiona.
“I think he’s just there,” pointing.
He peered across the water and thought he saw a lump floating. There were no more slurring calls. They jumped into the dinghy and rowed towards the lump. Feeling vaguely repulsed, he reached out and touched it. He shuddered as he realised it was a head. He grabbed the soggy mass of hair and tried to pull. The dinghy tipped dangerously.
“Can you stay on the other side?” he said to Fiona.
She leaned over on the opposite side as he tried again. It was an enormously fat man. With both hands clutching the sodden hair, he dragged the head up as high as the side of the dinghy. He tried to keep the head in position as he moved one hand down to an underarm, and heaved again. Fiona was calling out to the other boat which was now headed their way. He had the top part of the torso under his chest as he ventured a hand further down again. He grabbed a massive belt and heaved some more. Gradually the body’s centre of gravity inched towards the centre of the dinghy. Fiona still precariously leaning out the opposite way. The other boat coming nearer with, it became apparent, a drunken crew. Robert finally had the enormous, bloated body in. He and Fiona tried to roll it on its side as they recommend in the pamphlets. Robert hit its back several times. Objections floated over from the other boat. “What on earth is he doing?”
The fat body regurgitated. Some mucky froth with lumps spewed out, then some more. Robert was putting off the awful moment. He looked at Fiona in the flickering light off the water. She stared back, motionless. The other boat was still lurching toward them. He rolled the body on to its back, tilted the head, and, with a shivering grimace, put his mouth to the body’s and blew. As he drew his head away, the body sighed, spewing up more froth and flotsam and a distinct odour of vomit and alcohol. He put his fingers in the mouth and cleared some of it out. Lips curling, he pressed his mouth down again and blew. He had his hand on the chest and could feel it rising dramatically as he blew. The body exhaled again. His digust slightly disapated, he got into a rhythm. He heard the other boat come along side. Fiona was telling them to tow us ashore and call for an ambulance. Robert kept blowing. “What’s he doing?” someone kept asking from the other boat. “He’s doing it all wrong.” Robert kept blowing. He felt the dinghy tip as one of the other crew clambered aboard. Fiona was saying, “What the hell are you doing?”
“That’s my best friend,” slurred a voice behind Robert as he kept blowing. “He’s going to die. You’re not doing it right.” Robert kept blowing. He could feel the boats moving. They were obviously headed toward the shore. He blew again. “That’s not the way you’re supposed to do it,” whined the voice behind him. “Leave him alone Alan, let him get on with it,” said another voice. “But he’s gong to die,” said Alan. Robert blew again, and then turned to look at Alan. Robert was in his boiler suit, very wet, and covered in bits of puke and froth. Alan was in his designer jeans and a lovely white pull-the-girls open at the chest party shirt. “You want to do this?” Robert asked. Alan looked at his fat unconscious friend and said, “Charlie, oh Charlie...” Robert blew again. “You’re not supposed to do it like that,” said Alan. Robert turned again. “Well how the fuck AM I supposed to do it asshole?” Alan staggered jerkily past him, the dinghy heaving precipitously, and got into position. He hesitated. The reality of touching mouths was upon him. He hesitated some more. “What the fuck are you doing?” said Robert.
Alan said, “Oh Charlie, oh Charlie, what’s happened to you.”
“You’ve got to blow you fucking dickhead,” said Robert.
Alan finally put his mouth down and blew a tiny useless little puff. He lifted his head again and started saying, “Charlie oh Charlie, my best pal...”
“You’ve got to keep blowing, and harder,” said Robert. Voices from the other boat began to concur. “Blow Alan, blow harder, blow more...”
Alan got into a sort of pathetic rhythm. The delicate little puffs not even making the dead man’s chest heave. He kept stopping to reflect on the passage of their friendship. The boats were nearer the shore. A police car had arrived and two cops were standing awkwardly at the water’s edge. The boats ran aground.
“You’re going to have to get you feet wet pal,” said Robert to one of the cops. They both splashed forward. Alan looked up at them imploringly. They dragged the fat body off the dinghy and through the shallow water to the shore. Then stood and looked at it. Robert looked at Fiona. She was incredulous, her eyes wide. Alan and his pals from the other boat sloshed ashore and also stood looking at the body. An ambulence arrived, lights blazing. Two guys jumped out and crouched next to the body and began pumping. Robert washed his mouth compulsively with river water as Fiona rowed them back to the Keir Hardie. They got aboard. Robert rushed to the cupboard, grabbed the bottle of brandy and swished his mouth out. He kept gargling and spitting. He couldn’t get the awful taste of puke and spittle and death out of his mouth. He was brushing his teeth for the third time as Fiona rowed back to her house.
The lock at Earith is another very deep one, and it also goes under a road bridge. When the river is flooding down here, it sometimes prohibits boat traffice. Robert had come along here once before, heading in the opposite direction. A plastic gin palace complete with flying bridge and whiplash aerials was pulled up in front of the lock. The “captain” said, “The lock’s closed. River’s too high.” Robert had not heard of this before so he lashed up and went to find the lock-keeper. A thin, nervey little woman in her fifties, she said, “It’s only closed to tall boats. How tall is yours?” He pointed to his narrow boat and she said she thought that might make it. Apparently the problem was that as the water rose in the lock, there was the possibility of the boat being crushed against the road bridge overhead. In normal conditions, the level in and on both sides of the lock will happily let any traffic through. In the floods, the levels up and down stream are significantly higher which makes the operating levels in the lock that much higher. He had brought the boat in and experienced the problem first hand. When the lock was full, there were about six inches to spare between the boat roof and the bridge underbelly. It would have been entertaining to have seen the gin palace, a good four feet taller, in the same situation.
This time, the river at its manageable levels, there would be no problem. As he approached the lock he leapt up on to the roof to look over the bank on the left. Stretching away, as fa as the eye could see and as straight as a die, was the ***, the longest, straightest, smoothest stretch of earth’s surface in the UK. The boffins used to come here to neasure the planet’s curvature.
As the Great Ouse is joined by the River Cam, it narrows. Through winding bits with high banks, it feels enclosed. As the boat comes out of the last curve, a dramatically widened stretch of water confronts the navigator. With bags of room to manouvre, you can swing left for Ely or right for Cambridge. Robert swung right and headed up the broad expanse of the Cam. The pub on the corner has a jetty for encouraging passing sailors to come ashore for a pint. It is a very isolated location for a pub, but it makes the place that much more inviting. He couldn’t resist. He reversed engine, pulled up, lashed on, and got out.
At Ely, he was joined by Elizabeth. She was a vicar’s daughter with a strict upbringing. He had met her at Glastonbury festival where she was flitting around trying to cadge a lift home. Robert and his guitarist Nick were heading partly the same way, so she jumped in the back. She was the archetypal flower child. Long hair, bare feet, flowery dress and sun hat, totally unmade up and with big thick eye glasses which distorted an otherwise pretty face. On the way back from the festival they had all got very chatty. She was so archetypal that Robert and Nick had been quietly, cycnically teasing. She didn’t really notice until Nick addressed her off-handedly as “Lizzie baby”. There was a pause. She told him she didn’t like that tone. Nick, caught off balance, apologised. The chatting resumed, and when it came time for the paths to diverge, they were all good pals. By then it was dark and she was proposing to hitch up the A1 to Otley in West Yorkshire. Robert felt peculiar about this and lent her some money for the train. At the train station, she kissed them both and disappeared on to the platform. He hadn’t really expected to hear from her again, but she sent back the money and they sort of stayed in contact. In the course of preparing for his retreat, he told her he was moving his boat. Would she like to join him for part of the trip? She said yes and he met her again, coming out again from the platform at the station. There she was, same hippie stylee clothing. Same sweet face, long hair, and enormous glasses.
They drove to Ely and walked down in the dusk to the quiet, darkening river bank. The boat looked good in the dim light. Elizabeth was impressed. They got on board and got underway. The glided out of Ely and into the flat lands to the north. Robert was tired but he was determined to make as much headway as he could before it got too dark. Elizabeth alternated between chatting back at the helm and puttering about below with tea and candles and ganja. She eventually tired and asked about sleeping arrangements. Robert hadn’t quite thought this through himself and wasn’t really sure what he himself felt in the way of preferences. In the end, he simply said, “There’s the single bed up front or the bigger one in the back where I sleep. You’d be most welcome in the back bed, but whichever you would prefer would be just fine.” She said, “Okay” and clambered back inside. He didn’t know which option she was going for, but as he motored through the night in the soft summer air, he had a chance to reflect on how much he hoped she would opt for the back bed.
It was now getting too dark to see the banks clearly. His tiredness was now complete and he peered for a place to pull over. As Elizabeth had gone below, he would have to jump with the bow line. In the dark, this was an act of faith. He landed hard, but at least it was ground. He drove a stake in and tied up. He was now tingling with anticipation as to what Elizabeth had decided. He clambered aboard again. There was only one candle still lit inside. He passed the smaller bed in front. It was empty.
“Half a mile upstream of Salters Lode Lock on the River Great Ouse is Denver Sluice and because this stretch of the waterway is tidal it represents a challenge to navigators and restricts the times that craft can enter or leave the Middle Level. The lock-keeper at Denver Sliuce must be notified beforehand.”
- The Middle Level Commisioners
He had got up early in the summer dawn and started the engine. In the frsh stillness, even the engine sounded subdued. The level water parted perfectly as Keir Hardie pulled away from the bank and headed north. He stood on the roof and steered with his foot. He had never been to the Denver Sluice. It sounded mystical, profound, heavy-duty. He was curious to see this key junction in the East Anglian waterways network. The Sluice represents a significant turn off from the Great Ouse. It is the beginning of a beat across country to the River Nene. If you don’t turn off at the Sluice, you continue on up north until you get to the Wash. You would then have to travel west along the shore of the Wash until you found the mouth of the Nene, turn left into it, and follow it up to Peterborough. The Middle Levels were a shortcut.
When Elizabeth got up, she had on her swimming costume. He was stunned by her shapeliness. He had seen her in her hippy clothes and felt her smooth, warm body in bed, but he hadn’t actually clocked the sweet symmetry of her form and bearing. She was overwhelmingly beautiful in the morning sunlight.
Together they watched what looked like the industrial towers of the Sluice grow from the distance. It looked absolutely immense and mechanically implacable. He felt as though they were about to enter the jaws of an enormous machine. They had to heave to and moor a bit upstream. The mighty gates weren’t due to open for another hour or so. They had breakfast as the sun rose and the rest of the river life began to get on with the day.