A lot of life on a narrowboat is taken up with mundane practicalities. Much of the rest – when not being boarded by badgers, as recently – is peaceful enjoyment, with the freedom to sit at my study desk for hours and watch the English countryside drift by*.
[*If the scenery is drifting past when it ought not to be doing, then I haven’t moored up properly. Conversely, if I’ve been motoring for hours and hours at full-throttle and the scenery hasn’t changed one iota, then I have forgotten to untie the Cardinal from the towpath.]
These are lovely moorings, the only disadvantage being the occasional bat-out-of-hell boat from the holiday hire company about half a mile up ahead. Some of them, I swear, must be attending house fires or perhaps checking their boat’s top speed, but other than that, it’s always peaceful here, and I have moored here several times.
For the past few days though, for the first time ever on the boat, my “cave man” fight-or-flight radar has been grumbling at me, and it hasn’t liked me standing at the open side-hatch on the canal side near the water. I have had that feeling of my primal – possibly primordial – hind-brain telling me to climb a tree or run away or hide or, if possible, do all three and be quick about it. Instinct has been telling me that I am not alone, that I am being watched – or even being stalked.
Yesterday the half-eaten, half slashed-at remains of a substantial pike, about two feet six inches or more in length, appeared on the towpath in the middle of the day. I walked past in one direction, to the bins or for water or both, I think, and the towpath was clear, then on the return journey there were gruesome, skinned, broken remains strewn in my way. Some parts of the unfortunate pike were scattered ten yards farther on up the towpath. The usual predators, foxes and badgers, wouldn’t be about in daylight, so it was a bit of a mystery. Oh look, I said to myself, as you do, there’s a bit of a mystery.
Well, I had another most peculiar experience this morning, a most peculiar experience indeed, and one that may explain both the deceased pike and the awoogah-awoogah of my cave-man radar.
To set the scene, my boat, nb Cardinal Wolsey, is moored up in a nice, rural spot with one other boat about a hundred yards away behind us. The day is warm, a little too warm for my liking, a bit humid, there’s cloud cover but enough sunshine to keep my solar panels happy – and virtually no wind at all. There are fields and woodlands either side of the canal, the railway line is distant enough to soften the clattering expresses into mere background music, and the canal here is relatively deep and relatively wide, so we’re bobbing about happily. About a mile back along the canal there is a cut-through and some steps allowing access to a petrol station with a surprisingly comprehensive grocery section. I had called there for a loaf of bread, a half-bottle of Milk Stout and twenty Woodbines, or similar.
On returning to the Cardinal I stepped aboard onto the front deck and turned to unlock the front doors. Just as I turned I was splattered heavily on the back of my head, neck and shoulders with cold canal water, and then with a constant, finer spray. Moving across the canal water and away from the Cardinal to the opposite bank was a disturbance of some kind, half-vortex, half-splash but with a crisp leading edge, and a plume of quite heavy spray some two yards tall. Water was going up in the spray, but then coalescing and falling back again in large drops. The whole arrangement gave the impression of being much, much more energetic than it ought to have been for its size, whatever it was, and to be louder than was polite. It wasn’t a wispy, ethereal whatever it was, it was solid, and well-built and definite. At its centre, over an area of about a square foot or so, the water was being partly whipped up, partly flattened, and the movement left a curious “ridged” standing-wave in the water as it moved on.
A duck in the weeds of the far bank said something appallingly rude in duck-speak and took off with all engines at full-throttle, sphincter very obviously wide-open. Do ducks under attack on the wind lay chaff? This one did.
The disturbance stopped just short of the reeds and undergrowth, and it stopped very abruptly, just somehow “ending”. The canal water returned to being flat calm. Whatever it was, or whatever effect it was, it had just ceased, and somehow that was disturbing all in itself. The undergrowth on the far bank was not whipped about or otherwise disturbed.
Even more unusually, at least where I am concerned, my reaction had been to freeze stock still. Already hunkered down to reach the door locks, I didn’t look behind when first splashed, I didn’t move my head but only turned my eyes to watch the disturbance as it moved.
Generally, if there’s trouble, I move faster than your average atomic particle being transported between laboratories at CERN. A common phrase employed is ‘Where is Hutson, he was here with us only a moment ago’, and it is usually immediately followed by ‘Oh – there’s trouble, we’d better leave too’ or something similar.
To give you an example from my youth, on the sea-front at Cleethorpes a couple of groups, one fond of motor scooters, one group fond of motorbikes, were once working up to a bit of a flick-knife rumble and my family, like a lot of other civilians, were caught up in the middle of it. They were in the cheap-seat terraces searching for me amid the increasing unpleasantness, while I was up out of harm’s way behind railings on the main road, suddenly watching them look for me, and waving, “up here – I’m up here and you ought to be up here too…”
It’s not that I want to desert loved ones in times of trouble, it’s just that I generally find myself automatically and involuntarily displaced in space-time by my “don’t fight – run, you idiot, run!” gland. It’s not a conscious thing, I don’t get a choice in the matter, if there’s trouble then generally I find myself suddenly, puzzlingly, at a safe distance.
All the more odd then that my automatic, involuntary reaction this morning was not to be immediately in up-town Botswana or down-town Bolivia or even B.A.B.P. (“behind a big policeman”), but to freeze. That is not “me” at all. I didn’t choose to freeze, the whatever it is that usually makes me be elsewhere decided all by itself that not moving at all was the better option. Again, that in itself is …curious.
Did I step onto my boat coincidentally at just the exact split-second and the exact place that a meteorologically-driven water vortex decided to form, this just happening to be the first one that I have ever seen over water in England? We’re all familiar with loose straw being blown about in the fields, but always on windier and/or hotter days, one of those this was not.
Did I disturb something that had previously been enjoying the shaded, sheltered water under the Cardinal’s bows, and did I send it careering across the canal into the reeds of the far bank?
If I did disturb something then was it also the something responsible for the slaughtered pike on the towpath, and for my cave-man fight-or-flight radar beeping incessantly, and the feelings of being watched, perhaps stalked as I drank my coffee at the open side-hatch in the mornings?
What might it have been? A huge carp? I have personally seen examples of carp a yard long in the canals. Was it an even larger pike than the one ripped apart and part-eaten?
Aliens? Some water-devil from the depths of mythology become real?
Or was it just a brief, freak, highly-localised wind, and it is something else that is tugging at my hind-brain’s early-warning, telling me to keep my wits about me and my big stick at the ready? That “something else” is still not my favourite option!
If, when next I have the Cardinal taken out of the water for blacking, there are claw-marks on the hull, I am moving back onto dry land.
As it is I think I’ll just move us a mile or three along the canal, and see if my radar quietens down.
It’s all go, on the canals. Can’t help but wonder why I didn’t do my usual “teleporting away” trick. I hope that I haven’t just lost the knack in my old(er) age. I don’t want to become easy meat for huge carp, vast pike, water-devils or even aquatic aliens… let alone the canal-dwelling relatives of the Loch Ness Monster.