My fascination with narrowboat dwellers

Father Joseph, my hipster catholic priest, is torn between his vocation (and its insurmountable limitations) and a life of excess and freedom on the river. He has been renovating his narrowboat for years. His work is now done and the boat is ready to sail. He has also built close friendships with all manner of misfits, illegals and eccentrics living on boats on the canal. The temptation to pack in priesthood and join the motley crew of boaties becomes even stronger when a serial killer choses Joseph as his confessor and confidante.

Joseph’s fascination with narrowboats and the nomadic life on the canal reflects my own. Ever since we moved into the vicinity of the Kennet and Avon Canal, I became intrigued, if not obsessed, with the idiosyncratic and colourful narrowboat-dwellers.

The idea of pulling your roots out of the ground and going on a lifelong adventure always appealed to me. Add to it the beauty of English canals with their locks and quaint bridges overhead, rolling green hills undulating on the horizon, the busy bug- and birdlife bubbling around, the archways of tree tops swaying in the wind, and you are in Seventh Heaven.

I often wonder about those people. As I stroll on the path along the canal at Bradford-on-Avon, I peep into their dusty round windows and try to imagine what my life would be like if I was one of them. I fancy they are free spirits, creative, insubordinate, untamed and possibly given to the highs and excesses the rest of us steers away from because we, normal people, can’t afford to lose control.

Their boats tell their stories: bizarre trinkets hanging in the windows, chimes and charms, wood carvings, old bicycles and wheelbarrows with missing wheels, other people’s rubbish … They are arty and chaotic, bohemian, carefree and unrestrained, but they also have convictions – some of them are eco-warriors, others are neo-pagans and animal-rights campaigners. There are those who are just party animals; they like to play the guitar and sing along, eat sardines from the tin and get pissed. And a good few of them have no particular ambitions or objectives – they have simply escaped the rat race and want to be left alone. Their boats tell their stories.

Some people may dismiss them as wastrels. That would be an unfair generalisation. I have come across herbalists, restaurateurs, sculptors and painters, metal workers, aromatherapists. The other day I saw a man working with a sewing machine, making curtains, and another man carving benches from logs. Every time I go on the canal, I enjoy their live and living art on display. What a life, I marvel! So, it doesn’t surprise me that my character, the good but tormented Father Joseph, is tempted by the bright side of the canal.

And here is a little extract from “Broken” about that:

“I have done enough for one day. A blister throbs on my index finger. Inside, the cabin smells of methylated spirit and the sealant I used on the windows. I feel lightheaded from the toxins I have been inhaling below deck. I take myself outside to the bench on the front-well deck and light a joint.

            It’s a biting night on the canal. I don’t feel the cold at first. I have been physically active for hours and sweating like a pig. When the wind picks up, it chills my sweaty back and pinches my spine.  I shiver, but I am too lazy to go inside to fetch my jacket. I listen to the water lapping against my boat. Springy gusts of wind rake the surface. After several days of rain, the water level is high. My boat, with me in it, wobbles from side to side. My eyes sink into the inky blackness of the thick foliage on the bank. A sequence of shrieks perforates the dark. A fox? A bird of some kind? It doesn’t sound like an owl. My friendly companion, the heron, has departed to his lodgings for the night. His nest is somewhere there, somewhere high. I lift my gaze up the steep slope behind the line of trees. It rises and undulates into grazing paddocks. At the top of the hill, a silhouette of a cow cuts into the silver moon that has momentarily emerged from behind a cloud. What’s that rhyme about a cow jumping over the moon? This cow is doing no such thing. It just stands there with its hooves firmly on the ground. Maybe it is admiring the view from the top as I myself do from the foot of the hill. Maybe it is sleeping, its head up in those sailing night-clouds, and dreaming of going to the moon. It is either an adventurous or a stupid cow to be standing on the hilltop in the gusty wind. I give it the benefit of the doubt and lean towards it being adventurous.

            ‘Oi, vicar! Yo comin’?’

            I tell them over and over again, I am a priest, not a vicar. They also know that my name is Joseph. Joe is fine, too. Still, they call me anything but Joseph or any of its variations. Noah seems to have gained some traction of late. It’s to do with the pandemic. It was Loki who asked me the other day if my ark was ready for the shitstorm, and he referred to me as Noah. The name stuck. The others liked the biblical reference. My being a priest (or a vicar) probably played its part. So, I am Noah, the vicar, like it or lump it.

            Loki is standing by my mooring, one foot on the rope. Loki isn’t his Christian name, either. Come to think of it, I gave him this nickname. When I first saw him, he brought to mind a Viking god. He is six-foot-two and looks at you with those pale eyes, almost see-through, like ice. The straw of his blond hair is bunched into messy dreadlocks. He is often seen with his chiselling tools, and that includes a hefty hammer. His voice thunders and he is full of shit. So, I immediately thought of that mischievous Nordic deity – Loki. I know what you’re going to say. I am supposed to be a catholic priest, not a blinking druid. I am only entitled to one God. I accept that. But Loki doesn’t subscribe to Christianity. I can call him what I deem fit. Loki fits him best.

They have already started the fire. It is blazing in a recycled oil drum at the bottom of the slope where we normally gather for a nightcap. We clear the brambles every year because they tend to bounce back as weeds do if you don’t keep an eye on them. Loki made benches from felled logs. Loki is a carpenter by trade and an artist by vocation. The benches are state of the art. He has sculpted battle scenes into them: rearing horses, firing cannons and battle standards. They are also very comfortable to sit on.

            ‘Alright, Noah?’ Jeremiah shuffles along the bench, making room for me. I greet him in return and ask how he’s getting on. He flashes his canines at me and presents me with his regular answer, ‘Same old, same old.’ Jeremiah lives on an abandoned motorboat. He keeps it well camouflaged on the side of the woods which isn’t accessible on foot, so that no one comes checking his papers. He doesn’t have any. He is a failed asylum seeker. He sought it fifteen years ago and when he was refused he dived into the underworld. He supports himself from odd jobs, cash in hand. Don’t bother asking him where he is from. He won’t tell you. He says he is not telling because he ain’t going back there. I think he had to leave wherever it is he comes from because he is homosexual. He made a pass at me once. I explained I was celibate but if I wasn’t I would be fornicating with women. Men don’t do it for me. He said, ‘Fair enough. Each to his own,’ and we never spoke of it again.

            There is a whole crowd of us, boaties, here. Some are anchored here permanently, like Loki and Jeremiah. Others come and go. Travellers, peddlers, boating hairdressers, fortune tellers and even restaurateurs. Everyone is welcome to share in the warmth of the fire, and in the nightcap. We are a tight community, like the churchgoers of my parish. Probably tighter. We don’t talk behind each other’s backs.

            The brew is making its rounds. It’s a damn potent concoction. It winds you when you take your first swig. You literally cannot breathe. It burns your guts. By the third time round, you are used to it. You know what to expect, or maybe your insides have become fireproof.

            ‘How ya gettin’ on with the ark?’ Ruthie asks. She is a Tarot card reader. If she was any good, she wouldn’t have to ask. She also likes to read books. Her galley is lined with books leaning precariously over the cooker. It’s a bit of a fire hazard, but it’s not a subject I’m qualified to preach about, so I don’t. She lives with her father, Ronnie. He no longer comes out at night time. He has mobility issues due to his advanced years. By day, you will find him sitting on the deck, his legs wrapped in a green blanket, people-watching. It could be a boring pastime in winter when there aren’t many ramblers or dog walkers ambling by, but he seems to enjoy it. Apart from his mobility issues, he is also partially sighted. Most of the people watching is happening inside his head.

            I tell Ruthie about my boat renovation progress. I am nearly there – just a few cosmetic touch-ups left to do. I have been building that boat for going on six years. What will you do with yourself when you’re done, she always asks me this, and I always tell her that I don’t think that far ahead. Except that now the works are nearly at an end. So tonight I say, ‘Now, I’m just waiting for the Flood.’ She erupts with snorts. That’s how she laughs. Ruthie has a good sense of humour. I like her.

Loki and Jeremiah roll the drums over. Loki has made those by hollowing out tree trunks of different diameters and covering them with stretched goat skin. In his trademark fashion, he decorated them with battle scenes. These, for reasons known only to Loki, focus on the mythological militaria of Ancient Greeks: chariots, broad swords and plumed helmets, and half-naked warriors in the phalanx formation. He has painted them terracotta and black.

            I clamp my drum between my knees. Loki and Jeremiah hold theirs their way. Loki has his in his lap and he dwarfs it with his size. We begin. It’s out of this world! I am not musically trained, but it doesn’t matter. The drumming takes you into the zone, and you just do it on autopilot, as if you have been doing this all your life. Jeremiah is in the same magic place as me. He throws his head from side to side. His eyes roll to the back of his head. His hands beat the goat-skin membrane like the wings of a big black bird. Loki is grinning. He looks possessed. If a stranger got stranded in the night and heard us, saw us here, he would think we were all possessed. I know a thing or two about possession and I can vouch to this notion. We are possessed.

            Ruthie and two other ladies are dancing around the fire. They are swaying and stomping to the beat of the drums, thrusting their arms about their heads and shaking their tresses. They are like wild wood nymphs. We are like a pagan sect. I thank God Almighty that no one I know can see me.

            I stagger back to my narrowboat an hour – two hours – five hours later. Time is lost on the canal. I am pissed as a newt and high as a kite. No way can I ride my motorcycle home. I’ll have to sleep it off on my almost finished boat. I curl up on the floor with my jacket under my head. It’s probably damn cold, but I still can’t feel it. My arteries will be pumping fire for a good few hours to come.”

The extract is from my novel, Broken. You can buy it by following this link

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