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.
This morning, after breakfast, I opened the hatch of our lovely boat Hawisia.
To my surprise I saw something in the late-September sunshine that I did not expect to see: two men outside on the tow-path, right by Hawisia’s cruiser stern.
It was almost midday. I had some housekeeping tasks to do, but I noticed that these men (Cockneys by the sound of it) were still lingering on the tow-path beside the boat.
A few minutes later, after putting on my blue linen smock coat, I locked up the boat and approached the men who were where I had seen them last. They were talking eagerly, but they had also seen me emerging from the boat galley and clearly expected me to say something to them.
Cued by their eyes, the words tumbled from my mouth,
“What have you found there?”
No sooner had I said it than my eyes were directed away from their faces, towards the boot of the second man. His foot was delicately poised beside an object nestling on the grassy bank.
“A hand-gun,” he said. “Forty year old.”
“We called the police. They’ll be here soon.”
The gun was small and rusty, covered in a blanketing of furze and underwater slime. It did look ancient – perhaps the guilty partner of some long-forgotten crime chucked anxiously into the canal to avoid detection.
“Where do you find it?” I asked, amazed.
“Right by your boat!” One man replied jollily. “Maybe it’s yours!”
“It’s not mine – I’m a pacifist!’ I replied, not knowing what else to say.
We all laughed. I unlocked my bicycle from the rack above the boat and slung my lock round my waist. What a find! And right by the abutting rear-end of our Lister engine compartment.
The water is very shallow in this part of the Grand Union canal and in good weather you can see the sediment and murky detritus on the river bed very clearly from the bank. They had seen it, and plucked it from the gloomy waters like oyster catchers or divers. Who knows how many years it has lain there, unremarked, at the bottom of the Regents Canal?
N.B. Since writing this blog entry I had noticed several interesting objects languishing at the bottom of the canal in states of semi-liquid preservation. The River Lea, where the waters are deep are especially good hunting grounds. Once by Fish Island I noticed an entire sofa-bed, motorbike and car sunk to aqueous depths, their presence half-revealed and half-unannounced by the rippling water.
Yesterday was a landmark occasion for Hawisia and her crew. Finally, after months of languishing in the darkness – reading by paraffin lamps and tea lights, we emerged into the light. The dramatic transition from the pre-industrial to modern age was enabled by two modest innovations supplied by the excellent electricians Maplins. These devices were small pin-ended LED lights. Now instead of rolling out 240 volts of electricity to ensure that we have lighting on the boat, and hence running out of energy very quickly – we can rely purely on our 12 volt supply.
The small pin-points of light look like stars behind the mica-like glass of the lampshades. They have transformed our lives. We are no longer scrambling in the darkness, as strange stragglers of pre-modernity or atavistic cosmopolitans. I feel like a civilised human being once more.
There was something romantic about our incarceration in the boat with only lamp oil and tapers. But even this ‘romance’ began to wear down and grind on me after some time. After all we still have the hurricane lamps, we still have the lovely, ceramic ‘squirrel’ (our woodburning stove). But now we have also engineered a way to read properly at night, or watch our friends faces when we invite them over for dinner.
They are not all done yet. We have put up three – two LEDs in the old light casements in the kitchen and one spotlight. We still have to fit them in the bathroom, bedroom and living room. We plan to fit three downward-facing lights in the belly of the boat – more atmospheric that way. The brass LED ‘Knightsbridge’ light fittings from the chandlers are also quite expensive – £18 each. I imagine the more money we find the more, light will eventually spill from the small windows of our 60 ft boat into the surrounding night.