Christmas on the water – Where There’s Brass

While waiting for my PCR test to return, I had taken the day of forced rest in the cabin and easy access to the faucet to make up for what was threatening to become an out-of-control washing situation. Hand washing the clothes in the big rig is a slow process and you can’t really get the water out, so I hung the big things around the outside of the cabin to dry, and wrapped my thick boxer shorts of corduroy over the swan’s neck. My negative result came out overnight and I woke up to a severe frost and found that my pants had frozen in place. I took them off and stood them up. They balanced somewhat perilously and without support in the doorway to the rear cabin like a leftover prop from a Wallace and Gromit movie. I punched them in some sort of useful shape and hung them on the towel rail to smooth them out.

My negative result means that Plan A is still going. My friend and colleague Bridget the owner of Spey were going to London, and we were spending Christmas together on the boat. I would need to leave Ponders End and return to Haggerston Gas Station, which seemed like the best place to spend Christmas itself, given the handicapped restroom in the nearby park, the shops at Broadway Market, and the friendly boat passengers at the moorings.

frosty surface. This is Camden Brewery on the right, in Ponders End as it is now.

The sun hung low and misty over the reservoirs of Lee Valley as I started the Spey engine. There was a thick frost on the deck about the act of going forward to unwind and use the shaft for a life and death experience. Ben was uploading Emu for the next round and came to see performance and compare notes. After behaving flawlessly for weeks, Bolinder completely refused to start, and saw an opportunity to pose for me in front of another Bolinder guy, which reduced me to a sweaty, angry mess as I kicked her a few times without success. To buy myself time to recover, I resorted to stripping the injector to clean the flutes, before blocking the flywheel with the decompressor open to blow excess fuel from the hot bulb. After that I failed to clamp the olives on the fuel line sufficiently and combined with the gas lamp heating the hot lamp I was able to start a small but impressive fuel fire on the cylinder head. Ben continued the matter with passive amusement that sounded very familiar. We all know that with Bolinders, ‘there is but for God’s grace, I am’ when we see someone else get into a fight with someone else and you don’t have to be arrogant. They will bring you back.

After the fire was put out, he finally began a reluctant life, seemingly tired of embarrassing me in front of Ben, who was undoubtedly relieved and delighted to see an engine room in greater disarray than his condition. Down the now familiar river to the Hertford Confederation again, every lock is now a friend and a mentor. In the now frightening water safety zone, I struggled to avoid the rowers who had turned right in front of me without signaling, and saw me as some sort of movable bulkhead instead of another river user. She shared locks with a young woman in a fluffy dress as she moved her boat for Christmas, too. At Spurs, she gravitated over the water toward a side wash and was able to rotate her entire boat around 360 degrees before landing it in the lock in what proved to be a very elegant maneuver.

Bridget joined the next day. I spent the morning cleaning the cabin and getting a booster injection. The moorings at Haggerston are perfect in many ways, but the track down the boat side was too narrow for her wheelchair, so I had to carry her first and then all the way and across the moored boats to our cabin. Working on coal increased my strength, and this was not a difficult process. We seem to have a relationship that is at least 40% based on manual handling skills. It’s not entirely respectable, but in a world not set up for wheelchair users, we can at least get anywhere we want as long as my back stays strong. We sometimes delight in going up a long flight of stairs and then watch for reactions as Bridget rolls over to be served, knowing they desperately want to ask how she got there but feel they can’t.

Our hopes of sharing a social birthday with the other boats in the mooring row were completely dashed by the fact that they had all contracted Covid in the past few days and were isolated together as a group. We were waving glasses of festive drinks to each other from a distance, but it was clear that Christmas would be a quiet affair.

Not knowing how my test result would turn out until the day before, I was late for my Christmas shopping, so we headed to Broadway Market to load up on the finest and most expensive things money could buy. Shoulder of lamb from the butchers of the Hill and Szroc, pastries and cheeses from the deli, vegetables, and a very good bottle of St. Joseph that exceeded our usual budget. Bridget also brought the smallest Christmas tree in the world, 2 cm high, set it up on the flap of the table and immediately lost it somewhere on the floor. She also hung small pairs of red baubles from all the brass doorknobs on the cupboards and swayed like swollen testicles before falling over the next couple of days and ending up pretty much smashed under my shoes.

The moon rose over the railway bridge on a perfect night, lit the edges of the feathered clouds and the channel shimmering with scattered fragments. Comfortable in the crisscross bed with the gently glowing range and appropriately watching mental TV on my laptop, all seemed to be alright with the world. Santa wasn’t trying to do our chimney this evening, for several reasons, but that didn’t matter.

Christmas day broke and we went for a walk around Victoria Park, enjoying the Christmas truce of being able to say hello and chat with strangers in London. Knowing that our lamb would take several hours to cook on the small scale, we prepared it, put it down, and had lunch. I decided to run the Bolinder motor for an hour to keep the batteries charged. This time it started with no previous bullshit, now that no other Bolinder people were watching, but I quickly realized that the coolant water system wasn’t working. I cleaned the entrance and there was nothing, so I stopped the engine before it got too hot and rolled up my sleeve. It’s time to clear the mud box. This is a large bowl on the water inlet that filters out particularly large clumps in the water that would otherwise be pushed through the motor. It was filled with silt and weeds from the river and needed to be emptied. This is a dirty job, and in the end, after I used the jam jar to get the dirt out, I was completely covered in mud and grease. Happy birthday from Bolinder, I think. His sense of timing with such things is strange. However, the smell of dinner being cooked had drifted into the engine room, there was a soft faint light in the sky, the engine was finally running happily and the batteries charging again, and Bridget had a cup from the outlet ready for me when I returned to the cabin and cleaned myself up.

Dinner was great, took over five hours to cook, and in my case it was gone in a matter of minutes. I reminded myself that it is not just minutes of pleasure when eating but the satisfaction that follows for many hours. Wash followed. The cabin is too small to leave for tomorrow, even at Christmas, and soon every last bowl was cleaned and gone away, and the space was back to good shape.

I wondered what Christmas was like for the families who worked with these boats. I asked a few in a forum I’m fortunate enough to participate in and got some great answers, stories from childhood sixty or more years ago. Sometimes the charitable spirit comes with a bag of essential gifts for the children, and there may be clothes donated in the church to pick up. Christmas was spending a lot of people commuting, unless you’re snowing. Dinner was chicken if I was lucky, but overall it was another day where merchandise needs to get where it’s going if you’re going to make any money. It’s important not to romanticize gestational age too much. It was relentless hard work for little money with no prospects of doing anything different, and no respect was shown by a wider audience for the effort and skill involved.

We went to bed knowing we wouldn’t need to get up first to move the boat. This is why I will never wear a costume on Spey. I would find it disrespectful to those who really worked in the boat and had no choice but to put themselves in it when I played with it.

Boxing Day arrived and Bridget announced she would be enjoying a cruise to Kings Cross and back, so we stowed the wheelchair in the aft oil tank, prepared the boat to run again and left at midday very comfortably. The tow lane was filled with pedestrians gently practicing their ceremonial excesses and there was a general feeling of goodwill. Bridget channeled the locks with growing skill and confidence as I ran around the oars and gates, and soon we came to Islington Tunnel. Bridget forgot about the tunnel and recently loaded the scope with fresh charcoal, which means the atmosphere within 1,000 yards of the trail has gotten rather interesting. Having turned the boat over at Kings Cross, we returned to the mouth of the tunnel to find frightening clouds of white smoke slowly rising from the gate. Now our fire was lit, and the chimney was clean.

The outer leg was visible enough.

“I wouldn’t go there if I were you.” hunter shouted. “There must be something very formidable coming!”

“Oh thank you! We will be very careful!”

I couldn’t see the other end, so I carefully fed my nose and closed his eyes. There was a hum that could have been another boat or it might have been the echo of the tunnel itself. The engine stopped while I hesitated, and in a moment of silence I was able to judge that there was no other boat in the tunnel. I restarted the engine with a bang and pushed us into the dark. The smoke vanished almost immediately. There was a light current through the tunnel towards Kings Cross that had the effect of gathering all the smoke into a small but very dense cloud.

Getting back to the marinas was fun, large crowds gathered at the locks, stopping their picnics to take pictures and ask questions. The situation near the northern levels approached general friendliness. By 4pm we were tied up again, facing the other way into the morning, looking through the back doors at the great guards awaiting renovation and a new purpose. All in all, it was a very happy birthday.

If you enjoy these blogs, feel free to make a small contribution to my tipigar or visit my online store, where my previous books and albums are sold. I am so grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.

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