Chapter 14 – Cruiser stem narrow boat

Boating holidays appeal to a wide variety of interests. You can get away from it all on the tranquil backwaters of the rural canals with their quaint waterside pubs, or explore the normally hidden channels through major towns and cities with a wealth of architectural and industrial history only accessible by water. Your boating holiday offers many places of interest to stop along the way for the whole family.

There is also plenty to do on the water itself, including piloting your own boat, operating locks, exploring backwaters, and maybe taking in a little fishing or soaking up the sun! The slow pace of the waterways is one of the main attractions to many and because you travel only as far as you wish each day, your holiday can be as relaxing or as energetic as you choose. The Norfolk Broads are especially popular for fishing – don’t forget your rod licence

“Relaxing” he said
” Downtime” ” he said
” Get away from it all” he said
“Some real family time” he said

She was too busy picking up work e-mails, stuffing far too much washing into the machine, making an appointment for the dog to have his claws clipped, throwing something slimy from the bottom of the fridge into the bin that needed emptying and trying to speed read the novel for her book group to really pay any attention. In retrospect, she realizes,she may have grunted or mumbled something, that was taken as a consent,which is why, she is here on a grey cold February lunchtime chugging along a canal in Leicester-shire.

And its Valentines’ Day, she reflects for a moment, there are probably better and certainly less damp ways to celebrate, but after this morning, her mouth tightens with the memory, on balance, this is not the worst Valentines’ Day she has ever had.

The holiday did not start well, the children, Ruby – thirteen and Oliver almost sixteen,peeled out of their room for a family discussion, simply stared at their parents blankly for a moment before processing the information and then,in rare unity, voiced the many and pressing reasons why they could not, would not, should not, leave London for half -term.

Ruby listed her many, varied and vital social engagements, three sleep-overs, a photo-shoot for Indias’ birthday, a trip to the Snow dome and her riding lesson. her face darkened as she considered her absence from this social whirl, her pariah status if she failed to attend all of these events and the inevitable “talking about her” that would happen behind her back.

Oliver, shocked into poly-syllables for the first time since the wrong game at Christmas debacle,looked to his mother, the more, at least in his terms, sensible of his parents and played an early trump card
“what about my GCSE revision?”
The whole family stopped talking , partly because this was the first time that Oliver had said anything beyond yeah, no, dunno and innit for weeks, but mostly because the very idea of him having any interest in his studies was so fantastical that they all needed to absorb this – it was as if the dog had started speaking Mandarin.

Her husband waved an airy hand
“Oh you can take some school books” and went with his usual mantra “It will all be fine”.
He was a steam roller of enthusiasm – simply powering over any objections laid in his path.

The children re-grouped, Oliver, allegedly producing an over-due IT project, delivered an eighteen slide power point on the number of fatalities, injuries and near drownings on British waterways.
Ruby started a FaceBook cause, “Keep Ruby in London” and finally accepted her mothers’ friend request and sent her daily links to the page and its growing number of signatures.

Francesca tried the path of least resistance, trusting that his work, usually so reliable in destroying any family plans made would scupper [ she liked the nautical sound, scupper, it seemed fitting somehow] this boat trip too.
And meanwhile, the planning continued, maps of the area, waterways guidelines, National Trust flyers, the pile of reading grew as did his enthusiasm. He showed her photos of narrow boats, brightly painted, the decks decorated by baskets of flowering plants, happy smiling people, sunbathing, sipping white wine, even the dogs in the photos looked cheerful. He found interior shots and she had to admit, she was impressed, solid wood kitchens, Conran sofas in the sitting rooms, even a hot tub or two. Francesca found herself buying into his vision;
“Yes, it would be lovely to eat as a family”
“Yes, the children would enjoy it, once they got used to it”
“Yes, they would be able to relax, let go of the pressures of the city and their jobs”

She should have remembered that he worked in advertising, she thought, as they stood, a damp uncertain group, both children firmly plugged into an alternative, and better, reality, staring at the suspiciously small craft moored in front of them.
“perhaps”, she thought “its like a Tardis, bigger on the inside”

It wasn’t.
All Francescas’ images of cutting edge design, a boutique boat, a hot tub under the stars vanished as she peered into the dark, heavily varnished corridor that would be their home for the next 6 days.
The woman from the boat hire company, wearing a selection of fleece based garments and ear muffs with absolutely no irony, showed them over the boat.

It didn’t take long.

Her husband stared at the kitchen, smiled, shrugged
“No matter, they could eat out every night”

The master bedroom was
“Cosy, they would have to snuggle”

The childrens’ sleeping arrangements were
“fine [ god how she hated that word], Ruby would be at the center of their little home on the sofa bed in the sitting room & Oliver and his i-pad didn’t really need more space then the bedroom exactly the size of a single bed”

A terrible scream announced that Ruby had found the chemical toilet.

The children were still reasonably containable until two hours into their voyage when the devices that kept them plugged into their worlds, lost signal and quietly, like forgotten hamsters in untidy bedrooms , sighed and died.

Oliver fought it hardest, leaning dangerously over the side of the boat to catch any hint of a signal, but even he, finally, admitted defeat and sat, I-Phone in hand, staring at the bleak, flat midlands landscape.

Her husband remained up-beat, annoyingly cheerful, he peered at the waterways map and announced that there would be a lock soon
“this is what we need” he said, almost rubbing his hands together in anticipation, “a family task, all of us pulling together”

And madly, briefly, it seems to work. The children are curious enough to actually get involved, Ruby reads the lock instructions out, Oliver is detailed to assist his father and it goes well, there is a real sense of achievement as they navigate the engineering insanity that is a device designed to make water go uphill.

A weak, watery sun, crawls out from behind the clouds and for a minute Francesca believes that actually this could be alright, that for once her husbands’ irritating positivity might be justified.

He looks up from the map again
“great” he is almost bubbling with happiness “Foxton Locks – there are a lot of locks to get through there”

There are.

By lock three, Ruby shrieks that her UGGS are getting muddy and has disappeared into Olivers’ coffin sized bedroom, by lock five, he has told his father that canals are lame and joined her.

The two adults complete the many,many locks in a grim silence, by lock eight, Francesca considers joining the children.

Lunch is a mostly silent affair – the locally sourced food hamper, filled with mouth-watering organic products, turns out to be an Asda carrier bag, containing white sliced bread, instant coffee, prawn cocktail crisps and party ring biscuits.

Ruby and Oliver grab the crisps and biscuits and vanish back into the coffin.

Unbelievably, her husband is still cheerful
“never mind” he pats her hand “we’ll find a lovely riverside pub, get some really good old fashioned pub grub, have a big filling supper”.

The boat chugs on at 4 miles an hour – it takes a very long time to get anywhere.

The first pub, beautiful, thatched roof, open fire, good wine selection, is fully booked, the car park is full of expensive shiny motors.

The second, wood burning stoves, guest beers only serves food in the holiday season – it seems that February is not the holiday season.

The children sit silent on the couch aka Rubys’ bed, staring at their parents.

The third pub has a pool table, and very bright strip lighting. The menus are laminated and the food is microwaved and the wine comes in those little individual bottles, but by now, Francesca is faint with hunger, so they sit and eat. Nobody says much.

The children opt for immediate bed time when they all trudge back to the boat, Oliver looks despairingly at both of them and says, in a voice heavy with misery that he is so bored he may have to read his geography revision book, he shuffles to the coffin.
Ruby crawls into the unfolded sofa bed and turns her face to the wall.

Francesca neglects to cleanse, tone and moisturize for the first time in 20 years and discovers that snuggling is not optional as their bed, which combines icy cold with a sweaty dampness, is effectively a valley, so that they are forced to lie together in the dip in the middle.

On day two, it rains, all day.

The children, unified in adversity, start an insidious campaign to get to somewhere, anywhere, that has the internet and so they have lunch in a Little Chef, where Ruby and Oliver plug themselves into their real lives and refuse to leave. Her husband sits, flicking through National Trust leaflets, occasionally muttering
“closed October to March”.
When Francesca checks her i-Phone, she notices that Ruby has un-friended her on Face Book.

Day 3 is pretty much like day two, except that there is no Little Chef and the rain turns to sleet. Her husband has become as silent as the children and Francesca spends hours alone, steering the boat.

Day 4, today, Valentines’ Day, Francesca wakes early, she sits next to the tiller, a cup of instant coffee made with long life milk next to her, suddenly there is a movement on the bank side, an animal brown, sleek drops into the water and she realizes, with complete delight, that she is watching an otter.

She considers waking her family, sharing the moment with them, is almost on her feet, but something stops her and at that moment something changes in her. She sits, warming her hands with the coffee mug, watching the otter cavort in the water.
When he finally vanishes, she goes below deck, consults the waterways map, wakes her family and informs them that they are close to a market town and that they will moor up and go exploring.

The promise of extra shot lattes, WI-FI and boutique shopping energizes them. Ruby goes as far as to unplug the fridge so that she can use her hair straighteners and her husband starts to mumble about farmers’ markets and organic cafes.

The marina,when they arrive, is mostly deserted, the rain has stopped and animated by the expectation of good things, her husband and the children almost fall of the boat in their eagerness.

Francesca stops, calls to their backs that she has forgotten something, will only be a few moments and that she will find them in the Costa or Starbucks or Neros that the town is bound to have.

She watches their departing backs and once they are out of sight, she slowly and deliberately unties the boat, starts the engine and heads off, back towards the river banks and the empty countryside.

The boat moves off at a steady 4 miles an hour.

About cathi rae

50ish teacher & aspiring writer and parent of a stroppy teenager and carer for a confused bedlington terrier and a small selection of horses who fail to shar emy dressage ambitions. Interested in contemporary fiction but find myself returning to PG Wodehouse when the chips are down View all posts by cathi rae

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