The screech of a hunting owl with lamp-lit oracles soars in silence and solitude, across a black field of whispering grasses.

The dull thump of a fish against the steel hull as it rises- to emerge, again slips back into the mire’s darkest depth.

No one stirs.

Awake! A deep dragging noise. Our eyes pop open, wide like the owl’s, in robotic synchronisation. Staring wide into a blind gloom, strained, listening- intent. We lay in tense silence, studying each other.
Light footsteps run along the steel boat roof.

“What’s that? Someone’s on the top!” I glance at my spouse for protection-action-comfort. If I was on my own I’d stay hidden, buried far beneath the safe, warm blankets. Or I might run out, shouting as loud as my lungs capacity to hold air, crashing a noise out with all my might, as those huge and fearsome Celtic men of old whom the Romans met. And with shaking knees and trembling hands, then wished to turn and run. I’m Boadicea the Warrior Woman with Fiery Red Hair! In a moment, lost in the thought and hesitant in action, she’s gone.

In her place, the brave knight jumps to his feet, to confront the intruder, eyes on his quest, quick to the battle. He slides back the hatch cover, rough metal scraping against rough metal, and steps into the damp, cool canopy. Two feet land with a thud on the tow path and light footsteps run into the distance. The intruder gone.
I check the time. It’s midnight. Soon a news report returns on the lips of the brave hero. “Every-thing’s fine, except one missing log off the top.”

Anger wells up in me now as my relief kicks in and the fear diminishes. “They could have asked, I’d have given them the wood!” With a frown, then raised eyebrows, I analyse why someone might take a chunk of timber so late while we sleep. Could it be a fellow boater, late out of the warm pub and back to a frozen steel home? Boats- some have kids on them. My anger subsides as I lounge in just my vest and knickers, in the warmth from the log burner. “It’s fine, we have plenty more timber.”

A lone old man sways with whiskey breath. His course a winding one to a solitary houseboat. Feeling merry once again! He carries his grief separate, a heavy backpack thrown roughly onto the old schooner. An escape from a scolding wife, loss of a treasured family or an unsatisfied lover who dropped him for a more spacious home? He drinks to hide his loneliness, lamenting his loss, clothed in a neglected self. He climbs over a muddled jumble of boxes and junk crammed into his short narrow-boat hull and disappears below.

You can detect these boaters. They are the ones whose crafts, with grubby curtains that are always closed, idle in abandoned love. With peeling paint and their owner’s daily absence, they often become loosed from their knotted moorings and career across the canal, blocking navigation from both sides. Until a neighbouring sailor reaches out a rough hand to grab a floating rope and pulls the craft back to the side, where he secures the mooring with a strong firm knot again.

I heard one wet, windy, black night, a heavy bump, as a small craft careered into our barge then floated on up the canal. The owner was on board but watching TV, oblivious to the drifting boat which began to corner the bend destined to disappear out of sight altogether, until the collision alerted him. Inching his way on tentative toes along his gunnel he reached for a rope, with a bright torchlight balanced in one palm. Then, crimson faced, flung the thick nylon braid, with several missed attempts, to a concerned fellow shouting at him from the tow path. With great hammering’s, they drove a mooring pin into the hard ground. Secured, the sheepish boater thanked his shepherding angel and fled back to watching TV.

Boaters, we are a kind and colourful folk, at one with nature, we dwell in peace, where mutual respect still endures. An encouraging word, or a cheerful wave. The best of us stop to chat through the porthole, lend a hand to turn or push out a grounded boat. Share tin openers, and hopes and dreams or evenings sat together round a blazing fire. One sunny day, Dave brought us an ice-cream! In hard-times we find loyal friends.

So, we gave up a solid brick wall for a risky wooden door. To Prune yet again that perfect hedge? Keep your shears for our garden is vast and wild. A flooded drain in a cellar you can have, for a fight with a dirty diesel engine. A shopping trolley sat atop a bus stop, once outside our bedroom window in the town’s West End- a drunken trophy. But here are no rowdy brawls. The owl now sleeps and the great fish lays quiet.

Well rested… I awake, glad for the bird’s call at a vibrant dawn, bursting with life, and loud ducks call. The lifting mist as the golden sun rises and warms. So what of the fleeing of a night, the light fleeting footsteps of a night time visitor? I push wide an open window and welcome in my wild feathered friends. As after the cruel cold Winter with it’s smoky burned wood and long, dark nights, Spring pushes forth it’s tender buds, it’s sweet scents, and bright blue skies, then a new day follows.

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1 Comment

  1. Really atmospheric! Love the photo of the canal and the barge you used as well.

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