There is no better breakfast in the world than a par-boiled egg with an accompaniment of bread and butter. The egg is sitting in a wooden cup-holder. Its speckled shell is cracked and peeled back to show its rubbery white flesh. A pinch of salt has been sprinkled over the top. The bread is wholemeal. I have not toasted it today. It crumbles on my plate and in my mouth with goodness. The butter is unsalted, it sits in an Oxford green butter dish. My tea is the best I have ever known and one of the real treats in life: ‘Smoky Early Grey’ by Fortnum and Masons. It is a blend of lapsang souchong and Earl Grey. Its woodiness and smokiness set off the misted windows and the slightly damp air, with perfection.
The sound of bicycles passing at night – tyres skidding on wet gravel. The Doppler-effect of their rear lights form receding red splashes against our cotton curtains. Sometimes the voices are genial, sometimes slightly drunk. Groups of friends held in discussion. As the hours slip by, and the hour hand slinks into deep night, there are fewer passers-by. Their presence is shadier and more enigmatic. Sometimes noises slice through the darkness and the slight glass sheeting of our windows and the ice-cold hand of fear, grips me.
Last night, in the dead of night, the outside sounds broke through my subconscious sleeping mind and woke me. I heard a woman’s voice outside. Lost and strange, she was singing. In the obscurity of night it felt like an evil sound, a shamanic warbling sung in warped melodies. I allowed my warm sleepy night-skin to slip out of the chamber of heat underneath the duvet. I peered out beyond the curtains.
There she was, I could see her quite clearly, crouching in the undergrowth. It is dark by Victoria Park and so she was lit only by moonlight. Her dog, a large (caramel-brown?) setter stood – his neck straining, his tail wagging vehemently. What was this woman doing there, scrambling about in the undergrowth, in this unpleasant cold night, spattering rain? What was she singing and who was she singing to? I was frightened, but sunk back in the pillows.
A little later I could hear her singing voice fading back along the towpath towards the Cambridge Heath Road. Whatever she was looking for she had found, and then, like a demonic banshee of the night – fled back along the desolate road to Hackney.
What do I have to show for today?
An aching jaw. One brand new enamel filling. The dentist showed me a digital photograph of it on a screen, all blown-up so the cavity was perfectly visible. It looked like a glacier – frosty and white. He kindly treated the tooth with a mysterious substance that would act as further ballast against infection, a protective coating.
Then we decided to move the boat. We cycled home to Hoxton from my parent’s house in Camden Town. Nothing seemed amiss at first, but then when we stood on the cruiser stern of the boat it was clear that she had strayed from her mooring once again. Some considerate stranger had pulled her back. We could tell this was the case because her mooring pin was different – an old rusted pin that had seen better days, with the rope-eye, or tether missing.
This was the third time that the boat had come away from her mooring while we were away in Hoxton. I had tried to hammer the pin down in a number of ways, but nothing seemed to work. To make matters worse we had a 50 ft narrowboat doubling up with us and putting even more pressure on the precarious pin. Now it was gone. The previous times a friendly Polish boater a little further down the way had helped bring her back safely to the towpath. If not she would have been bobbing about helplessly in the canal till god-knows-when. He was a friendly fellow. I think he had bought a ‘shell’ a few weeks away and was doing some rapid welding work on the main body of the boat. One morning he had called for a fire extinguisher because a bottle of white spirit had caught fire from one of the sparks that had flown from his welding machine. Gideon ran down with one from our boat. One good turn deserves another.
But then this time it did seem a little more mysterious, because we had a stray end of rope on our stern. Someone had clearly cut our rope. But why? Did they want to steal our new metal pin? If so, could it have been a boater?
I felt a little ruffled but as afternoon ripened into early evening it was clearly imperative to get the boat moving as soon as possible. There was a little discussion about trying to fill her up (with water) by Islington, but then we would have to brave the tunnel as there was nowhere to turn round. In the end we decided to simply make a move towards Mile End, after all, by that point we hadn’t had running water working properly for months. I felt we could wait a few more days.
The towpath around Victoria Park is lovely. It is quiet too and the sodium lighting doesn’t burn through the windows at night like it does on some parts of the Grand Union canal. The neighbours seem friendly, and some lucky sods have beautiful gardens that back right out onto the canal opposite us. Their gardens are overrun and full of character.
As desirable as these mooring spots are (bordered by Victoria Park on one side, and terraced gardens on the other), there is also a reverse side to the coin. One of our neighbours on the Jack Merrick in Hoxton had told us that there had been trouble recently by the Park. Small gangs of youths had managed to break into boats and rob owners at knife point. I hadn’t heard anything about it in the news, but that might just reflect an institutional prejudice. Rumours like that fly up and down the riverfront. Once you pass the safe haven of Angel through the Islington tunnel and enter East London proper, one gets the feeling that canal life begins to get gradually more unruly and unpredictable.
Another memorable thing happened just as we rounded the bend from the distinctive ‘robert eels’ poster near Broadway Market. We saw a lovely mud-coloured terrapin in the canal, sitting on a piece of just-surfacing bark. His black leathery neck stuck neatly out of his shell and he seemed to be smiling at us as we passed. What a strange ecology of Pygmalion life-forms the canal supports! Like us, I thought to myself: amphibious, hybrid, a little weird.