Once upon a time I decided to buy a narrowboat to live so that I could escape the rat-race and pootle around England’s canals. The process is a bit like buying a used car, but with more chance of falling into water. In the end it seemed more a case of offering myself to various boats until I met one that was prepared to adopt me.
Sales marinas and boat brokerages vary drastically in aspect. Some look like scrap-yards on the Indian sub-continent. Some, at the other end of the spectrum, resemble the offices of Messrs Harland & Wolff before that little upset with the Titanic. A minority, those in the middle of the spectrum, and one that I ended up buying from eventually, are quite nice places. It is entirely a lottery. One key indicator is to find a brokerage without a parrot in the vestibule, or at the very least a parrot that does not squawk “two more suckers for the pot” whenever customers walk in. My advice is that if you have to rearrange a rack of cutlasses, wooden legs and black eye-patches in order to hang up your coat, turn around and go home.
Boats that looked gorgeous online oft resulted in my ringing up the Coastguard to ask if they perhaps answered calls from those in distress on the inland waterways too. Some of the boats I was shown bore in reality more relation to abandoned enamelled bathtubs on bomb-sites than to the photographs in the advertisements. One boat shown had actually been very recently sunk, hurriedly raised and still carried a filthy tide-mark just below the portholes of the interior. Others turned out to be little more than a thin shell of paint and wax polish attached to a dubious propeller. No, and on this matter I was quite firm, an optimistic arrangement of twenty tons of rust bearing the name “Unsinkable II” doth not a happy boater make.
My brother, whom I had roped in to accompany me on my searches as my “Designated Adult”, completely wore out two of his favourite eyebrows with the repeated raising of them in shock, and eventually had to have his boggled eyes eased back into their sockets with warm spoons. My own face, never exactly award-winning to begin with, began more and more with each viewing to resemble that of an undertaker’s bulldog on the day they buried the town’s butcher.
So it was that, world-weary and become cynical far, far beyond our years, the Bro and I one day decided to fill a particularly dismal morning by sashaying over to a local marina, again, just to see if they had anything fresh in with which to scare us silly. They did! They had fresh stock, oh hoist my petticoats and let me do my happy dance.
We picked three boats to view. One right on the button, one slightly up from the target and one slightly down but maybe a fixer-upper, who knew? The salesman handed over three sets of several dozen keys each and we wandered out to the sales pontoons for a gander and a giggle.
Boat Number One. Wow! Cue the heavenly choir, release the stage backdrop with the billowing clouds and the crepuscular rays from a beneficent sun, poke me with a bargepole if it didn’t look gorgeous. I was almost moved sufficiently to send word for my silly grin to be retrieved from long-term storage.
Out came our clipboards – the ones with boxes that required ticking. Hull condition – tick. Engine – tick. Layout of interior – tick. Lack of traditional carvings and paintings of castles and roses – tick. Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick… I sounded like a podgy little time-bomb of glee about to go off. Boat Number One had it all – the right sort of toilet, the right sort of stove and, generally, possibilities abounding. Boat Number One purred like a pussycat.
Move yourselves on to view Boat Number Two, we told ourselves, and we moved.
Boat Number Two bit me as I unlocked it. I kid you not, I lost a dirty-great chunk of one of my favourite hand-fingers just removing the padlock. I didn’t even see the teeth coming at me. Not being accustomed to taking hints even when freely offered, we stepped inside. Someone, some time, had bought a job-lot of those kit parts you can get from DIY shops to make your own staircase – and the whole of the interior was fabricated from them. Bannister posts and …spindly things, everywhere. Little partitions and sub-divisions as far as the eye could see, which, because of the partitions and sub-divisions was about two feet six inches in any direction. The interior was drab and entirely unwelcoming, except for the gay little splashes of bright red where I had bled. Boat Number Two hissed liked a spurned tomcat.
Alright then, Boat Number Three, gird your loins because here we come. Boat Number Three wouldn’t unlock at all. In fact, so unfriendly was it that it wouldn’t even give me the key back after my attempts. I had to leave the heavy bundle of keys dangling from the lock and explain to the office that they’d need oil, pliers and a stout workman to remove them, for I could not. We gave up on Boat Number Three. Well, it seemed only fair, since it had never even given us a chance. Boat Number Three, it seemed, was a non-pussycat, it had ceased to be and could be bothered to neither purr nor hiss.
We went back to look at Boat Number One again, and to try to do a “reality check”.
Tar me with a nautical feather if it didn’t still look like “the one”. Headroom – six foot six inches instead of the oft common cabins built with only Snow White’s workforce in mind. The shower? A proper cubicle with glass door. The toilet? Proprietary and pristine, with a water-flush instead of those strange devices made from an old biscuit tin, a plastic seat and two handfuls of sawdust please per deposit. This boat had the look, feel and paperwork of a boat that had lived and seen action, but that had not been fiddled about with too much (certainly untouched by a lunatic with a sub-division fetish, anyway). Perfick.
The broker was slapped out of his winter-season stupor and instructed to make an adventurous offer to the vendors. The vendors made some rather rude observations about my parents’ marital status at the time of my birth, asked if I earned my living in stand-up comedy – and then accepted the offer anyway. I found myself, as I have so often before found myself, signing binding documents and wild disclaimers and writing large cheques. For once though, I was buying something rather than settling damages out of court.
Me was boat owner (sic)! Then the full seriousness of my actions hit me like a sledgehammer.
The ambulance man was very nice. He said that it often happened thus and not to worry. He said that I’d been holding my breath for about an hour during the negotiations and paperwork, and that everything from my brain to my very finely-turned & perfectly matching ankles had been deprived of oxygen, and that was why I had blacked out. He said that I’d been lucky and that it could have been much worse had the concrete floor not broken my fall.
Seriously though, I mean – wow, eh?
We chatted amicably until my boom-buddy-boom rhythms were near-normal and my fingers relaxed enough to release the ambulance man’s throat. I then drifted into an optimistic reverie, a reverie of the kind only seen in especial idiots and the incorrigibly naive. The canals would be my oyster. In a week, maybe two, I’d be putt-putt-puttering away from the rat-race without a care in the world. Toad could keep his parp-parp, I had putt-putt.
Right. Fat chance. How naive was I? I’ll give you a clue how naive I was – the answer is “monumentally”.
I did move onto the boat within a fortnight, but it took me a year to get to the stage where I can now sail off into the sunset. That is, as soon as we get a sunset. A year spent up to my oily proverbial in bilges and gas-lockers and woodwork and painting and grinding and sawing and wiring and plumbing. A year spent learning how to do all of those DIY things. Without my brother’s calm reassurance the months and months of living cheek by jowl with tools so unfamiliar to me may well have tipped me over the edge, mentally.
However, they did not. I am as sane as the day that I bought the boat. My nice new lump-hammer agrees with my assessment, holds a fabulous conversation and plays a mean game of chess. I have named him “Mr Biggenthwacker” and I hold him and squeeze him and cuddle him and love him and hit things with him.
If Mr Ape allows me back again, I’ll tell you all about some of the things that Mr Biggenthwacker and I have hit. Chief among these is not number one in the pop charts.