Panorama of boats and craft docked in the Lea River. It’s winter and a silver light settles on the water as temperature edge downwards. A frost tends to settle overnight – disappearingwhen the next morning’s sun has risen.
Panorama of boats and craft docked in the Lea River. It’s winter and a silver light settles on the water as temperature edge downwards. A frost tends to settle overnight – disappearingwhen the next morning’s sun has risen.
When we first started living in London on our narrowboat, one of the things that delighted me the most were the trading boats.
These wherry-men were the savvy individuals who had cottoned onto the increasing popularity of boat life and adjusted their business plan accordingly.
The great grandfather of this river genealogy is a man that goes by the name of Paul.
Paul has a beautiful old boat – a nineteenth century coal barge. For this reason most of the boat has no roof, though there is a beam running across the top held aloft by two beautifully carved wooden triangles joined to the boat. There is a separate engine room with shutters which skippers usually leave open to cool the engine. Then there is a small living quarters. In the large space where coal would have once been piled in small, black mountains; Paul carries an assortment of the odds and ends of boating life: 13 kg Calor gas bottles, smokeless coal and red diesel. If you’re lucky he might do you a pump-out, although this is becoming increasingly rare these days.
When we were experiencing engine distress in Kensal Rise I met a young man called Dominic. He told me that when he broke down, a river courier that he knew would top up his water.
“I didn’t even need to ask,” he said. “I just told him to top me up whenever he went by.”
Obviously, when you are broken down, running out of water is a very real and threatening proposition.
But those are bygone days. The river couriers, perhaps once behaved like an ambulance service to distressed boats, helping in an assortment of less profitable ways by doing pump-outs and topping up with water. Now, however, even on the river, the principle of capital reigns supreme. I have heard some boaters complain that river couriers only stop for women, or only stop if you make several purchases at once.
Renée is the name of Paul’s adopted river son. He is French; he growls rather than speaks, his face is pitted and weather-beaten; his eyes glisten and his hair is a shaggy, oily mane of black ringlets.
The precise nature of the relationship between these two men is uncertain: but of one thing all boaters can agree, Paul was there first. So they are not exactly business associates or partners, they do not work as a team. But somebody suggested to me that Renée rents his boat from the older man who allows him to ply his own trade on the river front. I met these men both on the Western branch or concourse of the Grand Union Canal, but their remit is vast: at the beginning of one week they will be in Kensal Rise and by the end of the week they will have already made it to Limehouse Cut. Because of all the precious cargo on their boats they do not moor on the tow-path, but ‘piggy-back’ onto other boats. They are shape-shifters, nomads; forever on the move, ploughing the same familiar terrain across the wingspan of London.
I met Jack more recently. He is the friendliest river courier we have yet to meet, and he has a sort of mutually beneficial agreement with Gideon. The boat he pilots is called ‘The Archimedes’, it has a handsome blue finish and it is a historic boat, built in 1935.
I cannot speak of historic boats without telling a little story about one of our earliest, most enchanting boating encounters. We were cruising the water-course between Brentford Lock and the Western branch of the Grand Union Canal. We had just finished luncheon in a pub called The Fox (highly recommended) at the foot of the Hanwell stairs – a flight of seven locks. We were half-way up the flight when we saw a girl running down stream – she had come ahead as a scout. As their craft was so broad, she told us, they would wait at the top of the stairs for us to pass.
Eventually we passed the mysterious craft, so broad that it took up the entire diameter of a lock. A crew of six or seven people were walking about agitatedly, some with long barge poles in their hands. It didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before: it was very flat and square, the colour of carnation red and there was hardly any space for living quarters. I couldn’t understand what it was; it looked more like a vast gondolier than a coal-barge.
A girl with olive skin and a swirl of black sari wrapped around her head explained across the water, “It’s an old puppet theatre! Every year we do the historic trip from Brentford Lock to Paddington Basin.” They were on their way to Richmond they told me. Later I found out that this magical marionette theatre had been established on the barge for twenty-five years and we have caught the company during their annual tour of the River Thames.
And so it was. They got there in the end, and came back, even though the bottom of their boat sagged to the bottom of the shallow canal and the rudder become engorged with mud. A few weeks later I saw a sign in Paddington Basin advertising the travelling water-boat shows.
The river couriers are men of every season. In frost, in sun and snow they patiently chug along the rivers and canals, lock by lock, boat by boat. Their trade is in the mineral and elemental properties of life: fuel, coal, food. Through their livelihoods they are a reincarnation of the old spirit of the river, harking back to a time when traders and merchants would regularly ply the waters with trade, or courier heavy loads of goods through London. It is like experiencing a flash of industrial or pre-industrial Britain, they hey-day of the canal artery system. The river couriers have established a basic economy on water and hence the first rudiments of a canal-side society. They are the embodiment of the past made present and active; joyfully anachronistic, inspiringly free.
She gets up each morning before the sun has risen. It is winter. The cat purrs and pads on her cloudy white duvet, making it even harder to leave its soft body smells and warm creped edges. She dresses in bed, allowing her torso to be exposed to the cold air. Her breasts goose-pimple as they wait for the familiar hold of her brassier.
She clips it into place and puts on one of the shirts she has left out on the other side of the bed, ready for the morning. Her tights are still on from the night before. She pushes the cat to one side and gets out of bed. She climbs into her skirt. She pushes her untidy mane of hair into place before a vanity mirror. She pouts and puts on some mascara.
She switches the light off and moves up the boat. Another skylight flicks on and another bar of light shoots across the galley. She gives the cat her breakfast first, spooning out congealed lumps of trout and god-awful-looking processed fish into a small white ceramic bowl. Then she moves towards the boiler, cooker and control board. ‘Water pump’: On. Boiler: pilot light then puff! Nudge the ‘hot’ tap, after one minute a stream of piping hot water charges through the faucet. She washes her hands with the old bar of soap her mother gave her. Eventually the smears of coal fall from her hands. Fill up the kettle. Put it on the boil. ‘Water pump’: Off. Large frying pan, out, gas ring, on. The dented old pan warms itself up for toast.
After breakfast, she swiftly puts on her coat and scarf. That whole preparation has only taken fifteen minutes. It is as familiar to her now as her body itself; that rehearsed feel of the morning, and her snowy, woollen mind. Her hands search for the wet hatch-roof. Cold wet metal stings her finger tips. She pushes and lifts it back. Suddenly her head emerges into the outside world. It is still dark and spools of white mist cover the river. The towpath is empty.
Sometimes her bicycle is frozen. Then the seat feels like a hard lump of wood. The metal bars are sugar-coated with frost. The wheels have become ice-lollipops. When she tries to take off, away from the towpath and up the hill, she glides like a skater. The brakes are locked; the gear shifter has frozen. She is riding a frozen contraption like a jilted mechanical toy, on her way to work in the acute frost of early winter. She has become an English teacher.
This morning I bought a Christmas tree from Chatsworth Road market for the boat. I was very lucky to get such a plump, bushy one. The adolescent twin brothers who were offering local delivery services for one pound a go had already stalked off with another lady’s Christmas tree – a six-footer. So I had to cop my load alone. I slung the young spruce pine up onto my shoulder and savoured the fragrant smell of the tree, as fresh needles found their way onto my hair and woollen coat. I held onto the trunk of the tree and marched back home, almost entirely eclipsed by its branches, to the delight and amusement of almost every person that I passed by.
When I got back to the boat I had to negotiate both the tree and the cat back inside through the narrow gallery and past the kitchenette. I released my cumbersome pine tree into its new home beside the fire and hacked away at its caul of plastic netting with a pair of scissors. In a moment its canopy of young branches bounced down with the elastic spring of rubber. I realised with misgiving that the tree was enormous, and filled up at least half the width of the boat. It was a tragi-comic moment – Christmas was upon us whether we wanted it or not.
I have made a resolution to decorate the tree entirely from home made objects this year. Some girls at the Christmas party gave me good ideas – using dried fruit and spices hung from ribbons. The ‘Crafty Christmas’ page on the Friends of the Earth webpage also had some ingenious suggestions (including painting popcorn to create mini baubles and making cut-outs from baked dough).
The towpath by Clapton is very seasonal at this time of year. A group of well-wishers from a local church invited me to their christingle service this week. Passersby walk by in neat family groups, wearing hats, scarves and gloves. The Chatsworth Road market has been a success on almost every weekend this December and throngs with mistletoe vendors and organic vegetable stalls. I saw little plastic punnets of mahogany chestnuts and the deranged towers of brussel sprouts balanced in wooded boxes.
The passage of the Chatsworth road curves like a rainbow from Clapton Park up along the spine of Marsh Hill, past Homerton Hospital and up towards Homerton Station. Along its narrow axis thrives a row of local businesses and shops: from printers and bookstores, to French patisseries, vintage furniture outlets, second-hand clothes shops, crêperies and West Indian takeaways. Each Sunday there is a jumble sale in the car park and grounds of a lovely Victorian red-brick primary school. The newsagents and grocery stores there offer one of the best and cheapest sour dough loaves in East London.
The Chatsworth road is a well-spring of thriving local trade, creativity, and community spirit. It is an artery of life in Clapton, and could almost, on its own, be justification enough for living in this area. Ponderous and lovely signs fill the notice boards of cafes,
the backrooms of bars crumble in chic disrepair. There is a noticeable Francophone influence: small Parisian bureaus, dressers and chapeaus in the second-hand oddities shop, baguettes in the Epicerie. Yet the long street is not yet completely gentrified. Its primary purpose is still to exist for the pleasure and service of the local community; it is not yet commoditised to the point of farce like Brick Lane or parts of the Kingsland Road.
The road is crammed with unique and surprising offerings during its night-time incarnation too. It is bordered on one side by the enigmatic and anarchic venue ‘Lumiere’* and on the other by the gaudy folk glamour of Chats Palace, home to East London’s itinerant folk scene.
A lovely new, plain-fronted book and print shop has just opened opposite Glenarm road. I had a conversation with the proprietor and some friends of his in this establishment on the first weekend of its opening. Perhaps it is worth recording; it was all about the Hackney Marshes – our back garden.
The bookshop was a new business that had just opened this month. The man who bought the property had returned from Dorset, where he had tried, for a short period, to make a living with his wife.
But he was not new to the area. His father had lived on the Chatsworth Road his whole life and he was brought up here. When I began to speak about the mysterious power of the marshes, their beauty, and their silence – he paused a little to tell me what he knew of their history.
“They say that after the war ended – and you know how the East End of London was obliterated by the bombs – the authorities dumped all the rubble right in the marshes. It’s still there, just underneath the football pitches,” he explained.
“Best quality pitches in London,” another voice chipped in. The man was small, and bald. “They say it’s because of the rubble, it does something special to the pitches, absorbs the water.”
I stopped to think about this vivid proposition: that the land of the Hackney Marshes was a lodestone of rubble from the Second World War like East London’s very own sunken Atlantis or lost city. I imagined examining the cross-section of underground detritus, like the strata of the inside of a cake after it has been sliced and lifted into the air.
“Can I ask you a question?” I asked, sensing that I was in the presence of experts.
“Of course,” they replied.
“I know it must seem very obvious to you, but I never know how to spell the River Lee. I notice that on all the old fashioned signs it is spelled with an ‘a’, like a meadow, but sometimes it is spelled ‘ee’.”
“You can spell it either way,” the bald man returned. “But most spell it with an ‘a’.”
It suddenly seemed very silly to me: this tautology. Why would you name a river after a meadow?
“Used to mark a boundary line between the Saxons and the Vikings, did the Lea,” the bald man continued quickly. “It was represented the outer limit of Saxon territory, during the raids, that is. On one side it was the Saxons, on the other, the Dane men. It has a very interesting history, this part of London.”
I replied in the affirmative and then prepared to leave the shop. My heart was full of pride, inspired by the stories I had heard of the Lea Valley; that mystical kingdom, that viscose boundary-line…
* A Digression Upon Lumiere
Lumiere poses a tantalising blank on my constellation of East London landmarks. The magnetic and lurid appeal with which it exists in my mind is a product of its illusiveness. Somewhere between a public and a private space, it appears to be one of the most original and unique venues in London. The venue is owned by its namesake Lumiere himself, who refuses to conform to regular opening hours. In order to know when the ‘space’ is open, you must ‘know’ Lumiere himself or contact him. It is probably the only club-cum-bar-cum-god-knows-what in which the proprietor knows everyone who patronises his place. Perhaps that’s the point.
Amazingly, I have still not managed to visit Lumiere properly. But I have come tantalizingly close. Now and then Gideon and I will walk up to its glass door guarded by blue fairy lights and shrubbery. We peer in to see if tonight is one of ‘those’ nights when it’s open. Once we tried the door – it opened. We stepped inside. We were at the top of a stairwell by an old bar. We could see no one.
“Hello,” Gideon half-called, half-shouted.
“Hi,” the sound of footsteps climbing the stairs. She was wearing microscopic, blue-sequined hot pants and a very small corset. Psychedelic eye make-up and a ridiculous fountain of blonde hair made her face scintillate.
‘Do you know if it’s open tonight?’ we asked awkwardly.
“Oh, no, sorry, no,” she replied. “I’m just here for a photo shoot.” Pause.
“Oh no, but you must come”, she continued, looking at us. “Do you know Lumiere?”
“No,” we replied. “No, not yet.”
“Oh, you must meet him. He’s amazing.” She said, drolly.
“Have you been to Lumiere before?” she continued.
“No, no, it was our first time, that’s why we wanted to see if it was open.” We explained.
“Oh no, not tonight, but you must come,” she said. “You should meet Lumiere first. He really is an incredible person…”
Her voice trailed off downstairs beneath the creaky wooden floor boards. We had no choice but to leave.
First experience is protected by a sense of enormous power; it wields magic.
The distinction between first and repeated experience is that one represents all: but two, three, four, five, six, seven ad infinitude cannot. First experiences are discoveries of original meaning which the language of later experience lacks the power to express.
From ‘G’ by John Berger, p.111 (Bloomsbury, 2012).
At the moment Hawisia is lilting gently on the River Thames. It is sundown; the water has turned a boggy green and is reflecting back ringlets of bright silver.
Every time a small craft pilots down the water, the boat sways slightly. The sun has smeared to a pale golden yoke behind a veil of blue cloud. It is evening; Gideon is making carbonara below deck but within my line of vision – I am exhausted.
The real first day of ownership was not this one – this is actually a mid-week stage, but it is the end of the first leg of our journey and, at this point heroic-seeming effort to bring the 60 ft narrowboat, back to East London.
It’s time for another tale. This is a real story and dates back to the summer, an Indian summer, just gone. It was early August. We had only had Hawisia for a few weeks by that point, and had cast off from Egham marina, setting sail for London by way of the Thames.
After two days of sailing along the Thames in high Summer, we found ourselves stuck. It is an odd thing to be marooned on a boat, but we were. The boat was moored by the beautiful banks of Hampton Court Palace, the Tudor castle whose solid red-bricked beauty once entranced Henry VIII.
We were waiting for the tide – an experience which few know who have always lived on land. We were waiting because we had to sail along the tidal section of the Thames, which begins at Teddington Lock and ends at the Thames estuary. In order to enter the Grand Union Canal all boaters on the Thames need to sail down a short length of the tidal Thames, between Teddington and Brentford Lock. All in all it takes about an hour and a half to sail, and it is quicker if you are on the slipstream on an ebbing tide. But you have to get the timing just right. If the tide is going in or coming out too quickly you run the risk of being pulled out to sea. A large boat with a strong engine can survive this treatment, an old narrowboat with a 40-year-old Lister engine, with air vents in the engine compartment only 30 cm above the water level, cannot.
That is why tidal waters are a tricky business for narrowboat owners. Choppy water, seas and volatile water masses should be avoided at all costs. Otherwise the engine runs the risk of filling with water, and failing. Many boats which leave Teddington Lock late, or run the courageous passage all along the Thames to Limehouse Cut, are pulled out to the Estuary or are forced to moor up on a pontoon overnight. This can also happen if the locks happen to be closed, or you have not forewarned the lock keepers of your arrival.
I had made a critical error the previous week and confused the tide times: our boat crew was ready to sail and we were set to go, ready to brave the Tidal Thames. I had an old friend from university on board who had years of experience with boats. Yet I made the wrong calculation. The specified window of opportunity, one hour either side of high tide, was actually at dawn not at eleven in the morning as I had thought. My experienced boater friend checked the calendar just in the nick of time.
So we were delayed in our passage east and had, for the time being, to stay put by Hampton Court Palace, until the crew and proper time had come to essay the Tidal Thames once more.
There are far worse places to be marooned than Hampton Court Palace. In fact, by some estimations it is one of the loveliest sections of the Thames in the Greater London area.
Healthy hedgerows and thickets lined the mud-hardened footpath beside the river. The large fields beside the palace grounds were full of tall blonde grasses and meadow flowers. There were also home to happy families of rabbits and hares. It was easy to get lost among these grasses when the hot sun beat down upon your head and you had nothing but the narrow passages of beaten-down grass to serve as guide.
On the journey back along the riverbank from Hampton Court rail station I would pick small bouquets of fine lilac-coloured cornflowers and St John’s Wart, mesmerised by the chemical-yellow radii of their inflorescences. The common wayside flower of St John’s Wart is an old remedy for depression. Their taut young calyxes have the same pressurised solidity as rosehip buds.
That summer I was drunk on the fumes of wild flowers and diesel.
My natural propensity towards migraines was activated mercilessly by the strong-smelling fumes that rose up from the inside of the boat. When we bought Hawisia I imagined the smell was simply newly-varnished wood, that the previous owner was kind enough to apply. But I was wrong. As it turned out, there was some residual diesel in the main cabin bilge, and a minor oil leak from the pipes leading away from the diesel tank. What might have been barely noticeable in winter became a constant torment to me in those heady days of August 2013, when temperatures in England reached thirty degrees and more.
In those days we were both working in East London. Gideon was working at Brick Lane Bikes and I still had my café job on the Bethnal Green Road. In order to get back to Hawisia in Hampton Court, each evening we made an astounding journey across London. Gideon would cycle it occasionally and his commuting time was over two hours. I was less brave, and took the train in and out each morning and evening. It felt like we were having our summer holiday while we were still at work – creeping away in the evenings to a place where no one in the whole world would find us.
I say all this by way of introduction; because if it hadn’t of been for this particular set of circumstances we would never have met the old man of the river as we did that evening.
Because of the time of year, it was still light though it was already eight o’ clock when I started the twenty minute ramble along the footpath beside the palace, to return to the boat. A little bored, I heard the boat before I saw it – as the unlikely sounds of ‘Careless Whisper’ by George Michael snaked along the river and the sexy cool of evening. The velvet blue boat steaming past beside me along the river was called ‘The Misty Moon’. The owner, who seemed to be enjoying all the boons of boat ownership, was standing proud and erect by the rudder. He was looking straight before him, and confidently navigating with his back to the rudder.
Canal boats are not fast, and I was roughly keeping pace with him as I walked along the river bank. However, soon the spectacle of the blue boat faded from my mind; my thoughts were preoccupied with plans for dinner and the thought of seeing Gideon again.
I had just rounded the corner and seen the public bench which marked where the boat was parked when I noticed two things simultaneously: straight before my eyes, Gideon’s face appearing in one of the boat windows: and then, beyond that the shocking sight of a man in the highest paroxysms of pain. It was the pilot of the Misty Moon. The svelt strains of music had now become the perverse accompaniment to some dance macabre, as the man lost all control of his boat, and his body and arms were contorting and flailing about as helplessly as a wriggling fish. Lolling, in a half-conscious state against the railings of his boat, it appeared that he was having a heart attack. His boat no longer held a straight course but was aiming directly at a ninety-degree angle for the river bank before our boat.
Transfixed and mortified, for a moment everyone was motionless: I, Gideon, the black woman-pedestrian on the path, the elderly white man who was boating past in a rowing boat. It felt impossible to know what to do. The first person to react was the elderly boater. He managed to board the narrowboat, and take control of the rudder. Gideon, as agilely as a cat, managed to jump from a nearby tree and into the mariner’s boat. Though he had only two days experience navigating boats, he managed to bring the old boat safely beside ours and lashed it onto our rope posts.
While I was helping to bring the Misty Moon to safety, I noticed that the man seemed to have recovered slightly. Though he was still clutching his back in pain, bent at an uncomfortable angle, he was in control of his faculties and managed to communicate with us, though with difficulty.
The woman on the tow path had called an ambulance, and many people now were watching the rescue effort. I jumped onto The Misty Moon.
“How do you feel? Are you in pain? Do you need an ambulance?” A litany of questions.
The old face smiled at me, smothered in a wiry shock of white hair. “Na”, he drawled. “It’s just me back. Sometimes me back goes. I just need to lie down and take some painkillers.”
“Does this happen often?” I replied, concerned.
“Ay, sometimes. Sometimes. But it’s bad when it happens on the water, because then I can’t do anything. When my back goes, I’m done for.”
“Are you sure you don’t want an ambulance?”
“I’m sure, I’m sure,” he replied. “I just need to get some rest, then I’ll be alright.”
I reported the news to the woman on the bank. Soon the crowd dispersed. The paramedics came anyway, but he waved them off with the same insouciance as he had used to counteract my questions. He was alright, he insisted, it was just his back.
He went in to lie down.
Gideon and I formulated a plan to go and explore the pubs in Kingston, just down the water. But I was reluctant to leave the boat before I had spoken to the old mariner and seen that he was alright. So, for that reason, I did something that boaters don’t generally do – I clambered onto his boat, knocked on his front door and entered.
The Misty Moon had the sort of low ceiling you would expect to find in a traditional narrowboat. It was probably built in the sixties. I could see a rugged couch in the living room, a pot plant, tins of dog food and spam. But he was lying down on a makeshift bed in the entrance to the boat, beside him he had made up an identical bed, for his dog. His dog was a large, toffee- and black coloured sheepdog. She didn’t bark when I entered.
The mariner was lying in a strange trance on his bed. The boat smelt of dog biscuits and damp. He craned his neck back to look at me as I came in.
“I’m sorry to interrupt,” I explained. “It’s just that we are going out now to find a bite to eat, and I wanted to make sure that you were fine before we left. We’ll be back in two hours or so.”
The man smiled at me. “I’m fine now,” he explained again, “It’s just me back. When it goes, that’s it.” He stopped, it was clearly costing him a lot of effort to talk. I tried to leave, to spare him the trouble, but he wanted to say something more.
“I’ll be asleep by then – I tend to go to sleep at nine o’ clock. But I wake up at dawn. I’ll be off tomorrow. Early. I need to get down the river, to do a job.”
“Oh, so we might not see you before we leave? Do you work on the river?”
“Yes,” he replied. “I fix boats.”
“How long… how long have you lived on a boat for?”
“All my life.” A pause. “I cannot remember a time when I did not live on a boat. It is the only way to live … for me. I can do what I want this way. I don’t need anything. I’ve got my dog, a bit of diesel. I have everything I need right on this boat. I don’t need anything else.”
So I sat, gently talking to the old man in his boat. I felt it was a sanctuary that few people ever came into. I think, despite the pain, he wanted to talk to me. And as I sat, and looked at his tired, brave face, and stroked the beautifully-kept mane of his strong, loving dog, I felt like I had stumbled across the spirit of the river itself. It was experience talking to innocence: his haggard, pure love of the water, his love of solitude and self-sufficiency met my hopes and dreams for the future. I told him that it was a new boat, we were new to river life, and a little frightened. It was the first time that we had ever piloted a boat before.
“Ah, it’s easy.” He replied. “You’ll soon get the hang of it. You should do what you want,” he said. “Live your life.”
And those words: “Live your life”, followed me like a phantom off his boat and remain with me still.
Before I left his boat, he noticed that I was touching my forehead. “What’s wrong?” He asked. In his great tenderness, and despite his pain, he had noticed my own.
“Oh, it’s just a slight migraine.” I said. “It’s the diesel-smell on our boat, it gives me a headache and I don’t know how to get rid of it.”
“Well, if you like I’ll see to it tomorrow, before I leave”, he said. I couldn’t believe my luck.
“Well, if it’s not too much trouble…”
“Ah, it’s not too much trouble at all. You helped me, you moored me beside you. But I can’t look now, because of me back.”
“That’s fine. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“In the morning?”
“Yes, in the morning.”
But that night I forgot the promise I made to the old river man. By the time that I finally woke up the sun was streaming fully through our windows, and it was already nine o clock.
However, The Misty Moon was still moored beside us. I feared suddenly, for the worst, but then I saw his head appear.
“I said, I’d have a look over”, he said. “So I waited.”
The patient seaman climbed onto our boat, he eyes roved. I took him inside. “Yes,” he said. “I can’t smell anymore but I can taste the diesel on my tongue.” You’ve got an oil leak. Then he explained how you check for the leak in your engine. “Run your finger along the pipes,” he said, and his gesture suggested the same sensitivity as a lover. “Then when you feel oil, you know where the leak is.”
It was simple enough advice, but it helped enormously. My gratitude was wordless, and tinged with a kind of sadness for the lovely old man.
Then with an awkward movement, he swung his legs back onto his boat, and started up the engine. It trilled and sang perfectly. Then he gently glided away, my heart filled with sorrow. The boat slid out of view, the transcendentally named boat of the misty, dark, skies, and I felt with a certainty that I couldn’t justify, that I would never see the boat or her owner, again.
Behemoth is gratefully enjoying the thermals circulating by the fireplace chimney. She is asleep in this picture.
There are a lot of ‘13’s in today’s date, I realise now, as I write it. I am not a believer in superstition so this coincidence convinces me more than ever that she will come back – won’t she?
The little piece of white paper tacked onto one of our windows announces more forlornly than any other words can, what today has heralded. We have lost Behemoth. The sign reads: ‘Missing cat! If you have seen a grey tabby cat with a yellow collar please call this number’. I have drawn a little picture of a cat’s face to attract the attention of passers-by, but I’m not sure if anyone has noticed it yet. The people I really need to alert are the boaters – if they all know, the chances of getting her back are increased ten-fold.
The trouble started last night.
We had recently moved the boat from Hackney Wick to the beginning of the tow-path stretch that leads towards Stoke Newington. It is an ideal location for a cat, and not at all a bad one for human beings either. The lovely larch and ash trees sprinkle yellow and orange leaves onto our boat roof each morning. The marshes themselves – a huge, unpopulated stretch of common land on the border between Hackney and Leyton was given to the people of this area, I believe, historically, in compensation for the construction of the M25. Now the marshes along with the Lea River which meanders beside it, has become a fundamental source of life and nourishment for the area. Scores of crows and birds of all descriptions circle above Wick wood. Gaggles of Canadian Geese and wild swans swim up and down the river. It is a haven for foxes, birds, rabbits, squirrels and woodland beasts of all descriptions.
Though it is only ten minutes boating down from Hackney Wick it feels as natural and rural and Hackney Wick felt affirmatively urban. In any case, as a new club had opened across the water from Hawisia in Hackney Wick, the peace of Hackney Marshes was a welcome change.
We knew that moving would disorientate the cat, but it is part of the itinerant boater’s lifestyle and we knew she would have to get used to it. The first two days by Hackney Marsh Behemoth was very tentative about going outside. She would pad forward slightly and sniff about – balancing on the gunnels of the boat.
One evening as we were sitting by the fire she found that one of the windows had been left slightly open, and jumped through it. We saw the end of her foxey tail disappear beyond the glass but were powerless to stop her. It was nine o’ clock.
Midnight struck and we were falling asleep beside the fire. She still hadn’t returned but it was time for us to go to bed. We were both prepared to hop out of bed as soon as we heard the imploring purr she sounds when she wants to be let back inside the boat.
My night’s sleep was fitful. I kept on waking up, imagining that I could hear the distant tinkle of her bell. Several times I got out of bed and opened the latch. My upper torso was exposed to the freezing air. I saw the river in all the states of its amorphous glory that evening – at night, frosted and silvered by the clear sky above, at dawn, covered with a thin layer of mist. Each time I stuck my body out of the hatch I cooed and called out “Behemoth, Behemoth”, but she did not come.
In the morning Gideon and I got on with some boat tasks: flooing the chimney, clearing the solar panels, doing the washing up. But fear and anxiety made it hard to talk or focus on anything else. I had already cycled up and down the tow-path several times, all the way to Hackney Wick. I called out her name but she never came, I spoke to other boaters about her, and even a friendly park ranger. She had not been seen by anyone.
I had a new torment that morning – joggers. What is the one thing that joggers carry with them in the autumn? House keys. Every time I heard a distant tinkling and expected Behemoth to come bounding up to the boat, I looked outside only to see another ear-muffed jogger puffing past. No cat at all.
Morning matured into afternoon. Gideon and I decided to do some work in Stoke Newington library. We came back. It was getting dark and there was still no sight of the cat. Gideon went out for one more cycle-search before night. He returned empty handed. At that point we decided that we needed to eat, so out Gideon went again to buy some food from the shops in Clapton. I had made a missing cat sign that morning, but no-one had called. It was almost twenty-four hours since Behemoth had disappeared.
Then, suddenly, while I was ruminating bleakly on her absence –
She’s back!! My god she’s back!!! I am the happiest soul in the world!!! I heard a distant tinkle, then a miaow, then I snatched her into my arms. She absolutely gobbled down her dinner, and I smothered her with kisses and hugs, I’m sure to the point of irritation. I couldn’t take my hands or eyes off the dear thing. When I heard Gideon putting his bike on top of the boat, I stood with the cat in my arms so that when he opened the hatch, her dreamy green eyes were the first things that he would see.