I want to tell a story that dates right back to the early days of our boat ownership. The story is about the China Girl.
It was summertime. At that point we were moored in a very interesting region of Greater London known as Southall. It is halfway between London and Gatwick, and anyone passing through will remember it. The station name is written in an elaborate script – Hindi I think – beneath its English name, and the district is famous for being the home of London’s most significant Sikh Temple, the famous Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Saba. It is about twenty minutes from Paddington.
We were still engaged in out exodus East – to Limehouse in London, but had not even penetrated as far as Kensal Rise. We had just passed Brentford Lock a few days before. The canal felt very removed from the hubbub of the surrounding neighbourhoods with its myriads of vegetable grocers and cheap household goods shops. A hedgerow sheltered it from the view of a school playground. We had moored the bank across water from ‘town’, just across a small, steel bridge and rampart. It was while we were moored there that we first met the unfortunate China Girl.
Like a changeling with different coloured eyes, one eye green and the other eye blue, or the lovely pied ‘streaked gillyvor’ Perdita exalts in A Winter’s Tale, the boat was painted red on one side and blue on the other. A more wretched, shipwrecked boat, still above water is hard to imagine. I was amazed that she even floated at all. The steel covering of her cruiser stern had been pulled up in places, the rudder was a sorrily improvised mess. One cheap metal chair with missing slats was welded down to the floor. The paintwork was chipped and crumbling. The glass in her windows was broken, a few tatty yellowed lace curtains still hung on sorry rails. Her hull was a bedrock for algae and weeds.
In short it looked as though she had been abandoned for many years on the water. Her ambivalent double coating of paint seemed a dubious and unfinished attempt at disguise, or yet another botched and unfinished job of which she, as a boat, was the supreme example.
I did not see anyone going to or away from her for many days, even in the intense heat of that summer. I concluded that she had indeed been deserted, and was just waiting for the canal and river trust to tow her off. Her license was woefully out of date – last legitimately allowed to sail in 2011.
Then, one afternoon I finally saw her owners. The back of the 50 ft boat had come loose of its mooring and the boat was drifting downstream. Another neighbouring boater was helping two shouting men on board. They were flailing around stupidly. Eventually the boat was brought safely back to bank.
They were a motley pair – two rascally Englishmen, who had littered the boat with a shower of crumpled cider tins. They seemed totally incompetent and in every way unprepared for life on the water.
To me, China Girl’s romantic state of dilapidation was only enhanced by the story that was later told me by her unfortunate owners, when I finally approached them the following afternoon. They had just returned from an unknown location after hauling her large and ungainly engine out of the back of the boat. They were very open and seemed at a loss with what to do with her.
“Where did you get her?” I asked them.
“A fella sold us the boat a few weeks ago”, they explained.
“How much for?”
“Why, how much was your boat?”
“Over twenty thousand”, I replied. (I felt a little uncomfortable saying this, as I didn’t know them very well, but they were very inquisitive. Actually, almost every boat on the water, if it’s not chronically damaged or old, costs above that figure, and many are above the 30,000 mark.)
“What’s wrong with the engine?” I asked.
“Absolutely f*****”, one of the men replied. “When we bought the boat it started. But now it’s not starting at all. It’s all choked up. One of the other men from the boats had a look at it and says we need to buy a new engine.”
This is almost the worst news that any new boat owner could receive. Other problems can be fixed. But engine trouble is very dangerous. It could cost thousands to repair.
“Didn’t you get a survey done?” I replied. Surveys are meant to highlight essential matters such as defunct or problematic engines.
“Nah, didn’t get a chance. The bloke wanted to sell it in a rush. We thought it was alright.”
Unfortunately matters only only worse for them the following day. I saw an official-seeming man speak to them (they were about four boats up from me on the tow-path). As I was passing with my bicycle I asked them if there had been any further developments.
“It’s getting even worse,” one replied. “Apparently the boats listed. The authorities have been after because the previous owner didn’t have a valid license for years. We’ve got to get a new license.”
It seemed amazing to me that the pair of men had bought the boat within realising that you need to buy a license to use it. It probably came as a nasty surprise that an annual license costs around £900. Their bills were mounting.
“What are you going to do?” I asked, wondering even to myself if it would be worth the financial and physical effort to make China Girl sea-worthy again.
My question returned blank stares. They had no idea. The dreamy, impromptu decision to buy a narrowboat for next-to- nothing, (although five thousand pounds is still a lot of money to throw away), had landed them in catastrophe.
But still the boat, and its story, did have undeniable charm. It was like an episode from a water-based cowboy and western: a renegade, get-away vessel for years, black-listed and forever on the run, China Girl, had finally run aground. Her mountebank previous owner was now, most likely pirating in other parts, hoodwinking whomever he came across.
The story is an unfinished one. I never knew what finally happened to The China Girl, we left before her fate was decided. But in my mind’s eye I see her still, half-collapsing into the water, playing a den to thieves, perhaps, for many years to come.