I can't remember when, but eventually Mark and Ben woke up. Actually it must have been about quarter to seven in the morning. Once they were awake, we all started to get out of bed. I brushed my teeth while Mark woke up properly and moaned at Ben to get up. Soon we were all downstairs eating cornflakes and drinking tea or coffee. We tried to keep up a stimulating line of conversation, but it was pretty difficult after just getting up.
The plan made the night before had it that we force Mark's mum out of bed, and get a lift to the train station. However, as time ran out, Mark decided that it would take too long to wait for his mum to get awake and ready, so we gathered our stuff and walked the entire five metres to the bus stop outside Mark's house. The buzz of a journey beginning started to stir us out of our fatigue, and we kept up a line of uninspiring small talk while Mark paced to the kerb and back to look for approaching buses.
The bus that we needed seemed to take its time, but it came eventually and carried us along a five minute journey to Sutton Station. Lugging around our various bags we passed through the drab foyer, purchased our tickets to London and headed down to platform one. Where we met Finbar.
Where have you been? Finbar asked, looking at his watch. We were about ten minutes late on our arrival, and Finbar had known we would be.
Finbar, we got here half an hour ago. We've been looking for you, Mark lied.
Oh, Finbar murmured, glancing away. I doubted very much that Finbar believed us, but he was too sleepy to argue.
Wait here, he said,
while I go to the cash machine.
Okay, said Mark beginning to smile.
But if the train comes, we're getting it.
Finbar didn't miss the train, and about ten minutes later we were riding at speed to Victoria Station in London. The woman in the same seating area as me was not impressed as I sat down, dumping all my many bags across the seats and about the floor. In fact, I almost fell on her as I tripped over my own baggage, and she had a displeased look of after-panic as I turned to talk to the others in the adjacent seating area.
We're meeting Mike and John at the train station, yeah? I asked.
No, I think they'll be at the coach station, said Mark.
I sat quietly watching the others talk amongst themselves. At this point I decided to begin the photographic record. So I took my Yashica T5 compact camera from my main bag and started to get a few shots of us 'on the way there'. It was also at this point that the complaints and frowns set in. Finbar groaned and screwed up his features, muttering something about damned cameras, then turned away to ruin the shot. Ben frowned and complained:
Why are you taking pictures of us on the train?
When am I supposed to take pictures? I asked, lowering the camera. This was not the first time I'd caused looks of disbelief from people by attempting to get pictures of a seemingly unimportant event or situation.
Not on the train, Finbar moaned.
Oh, for God's sake. I want pictures of every stage of the week.
Every stage of the week! one of them exclaimed.
Just a record, I replied. They both moaned and Ben scowled at me for a minute. Then carried on talking.
Mark didn't make a single complaint. During the week he was easily the most natural around a camera, and rarely complained about the presence of one. He was happy to have the thing aimed at him, so I started with him, assuring Finbar that he wasn't in the shot. I lied. The Yashica T5 has a useful thing called a Super Scope that acts like a prism, letting you see what you're aiming at from a right angle to the lens. This came in very handy all during the week for sneaky shots, and went to good use at this time on the train, when it was needed to discreetly catch pictures of the group when they didn't realise the camera was in use. So began the large collection of pictures of the week.
The journey soon terminated at Victoria and the train emptied rapidly of the shoppers, workers and tourists that wanted to begin the day in Central London.
Once off the platforms of Victoria you end up in the vast shopping square housed within the station, containing outlets like Our Price, Burger King, McDonalds, WH Smiths, and Dixons. Mark, Ben and Finbar decided they wanted to buy some magazines for the journey, so I offered to stand outside WH Smiths with Ben and Mark's luggage while all three perused the shelves.
Thanks, Bob, said Ben before throwing his possessions down at my feet.
You know it's the best idea. Apparently Ben thought I was sacrificing the chance to go in just to look after their gear. In fact it was just a case of me not wanting a magazine to read, or I would have gone in too, luggage and all.
Which is something Finbar tried. After a couple of minutes of not fitting down shelving aisles, Finbar returned to where I was standing and said,
Can you look after my stuff, I can't move in there with all these bags.
Yeah, I laughed, wondering at what caused him to take it all in there in the first place.
I again felt I needed to record this moment, so out came the Yashica camera, and I tried to get a shot of the guys buying their magazines. I stopped when I suddenly realised I couldn't actually see any of them, then noticed two of them had left the store by the other exit and were now on their way back to me. So I only managed to get Finbar leaving the shop.
Suitably fixed with reading material, we headed off to Victoria Coach Station. On the way in, Finbar found a luggage trolley and we all bunged our bags on to it, Finbar and Mark propelling the trolley forward toward our coach terminal, apparently oblivious to the 'No trolleys beyond this point' notice displayed on just about every door. But nobody stopped them, even when they spun a tourist right out of a shallow phone booth by colliding with her backpack. She yelled after them with some foul term that didn't suggest much affection.
We reached our terminal and were greeted by Mike and John, John sitting on an ancient wood and leather box suitcase with destination stickers on it. I don't think I'd ever before seen such a thing in real life.
Ahhhhh, Robert! John drawled, grinning.
Good morning, John. Hi, Mike.
Where's Rizwan? Mark asked, suddenly tense at the thought of someone turning up late. It wasn't long to go before our coach was due to depart.
We don't know. We haven't seen him yet, replied Mike.
He does know how to get here? Mark checked.
I think so.
I mean, he should do. He works in London.
Oh, God, Mark moaned, rolling his eyes.
The six of us sat about talking for a while, before Mark and Finbar decided they wanted something to eat.
We're going to that shop back there, said Mark.
Well don't be bloody long, snapped Ben.
We have to board the coach in about seven minutes.
We won't, Mark and Finbar droned. They did not like the suggestion that they would be late.
I might go and look for Rizwan, said Mike, heading off down the station to see if Rizwan was waiting at some other terminal, leaving me and John to talk. I decided to take some more pictures. I was quite pleased with myself by now – I'd been worried I wouldn't find many things to get photographs of, that I'd be too fussy with the film and already I'd taken three quarters of a roll. We weren't even on the coach up there yet.
Shortly Mike returned to our terminal with Rizwan.
Where were you? I asked.
Just down there. Rizwan seemed displeased, like he'd been waiting in the wrong place.
Suddenly a game of 'guess what Bob's tripod bag actually is' began, with the group suggesting things like rocket launcher, gigantic dildo, set of golf clubs. I pretended to be amused, instead paying attention to the deepening frown on Ben's face.
What's up, Ben?
Those bloody idiots still aren't back. Look! People are about to start getting on the coach, and now we're at the back of the queue.
He had a point. As many times as Finbar and Mark promise they'll be on time, and tell you to
stop worrying, you know all along they're going to be late anyway.
Presently they reappeared, big smiles the after-effect of some joke they'd shared in the Upper Crust coffee and sandwich shop they'd been to.
Ben gave them a verbal bashing, and they tutted their disapproval of his attitude. Ben cursed under his breath as we began heading through the glass terminal doors out to the coach.
When we finally reached the front of the queue, Ben showed the attendant our ticket-for-seven and we stowed our luggage in the cabins at the side of the coach, then boarded. I, Finbar and Mark hurried to the few remaining seats clustered together. Mike ended up at the back somewhere. Rizwan, John and Ben were scattered about far in front of us.
Once out of the coach terminal, the three of us lucky enough to be within talking range began to chat about the day ahead, and I made use of the good light to get a few pictures of the coach journey, much to Finbar's loud disapproval. At least no one else was complaining, because I didn't use the flash to take pictures. Some people didn't even realise I was taking pictures, so the only complaints I got were from my own group.
While the lucky three chatted, Mike relaxed by listening to a few happy hardcore tracks on his Discman and John listened to some tapes. I couldn't work out what Ben and Rizwan were doing in their isolated places, but I doubt Ben was happy about sitting away from the main group just because Mark and Finbar had spent so long at the shop. It was best not to ask him.
A few hours later we arrived in Birmingham, pulling in at Digbeth Coach Station, a shack of a place compared to the modern internal decor of Victoria. But it served its purpose, and we alighted and thought about getting a cab to the place called Tardebigge where the boat-hire base was. This proved harder than we'd thought, as Mark and Finbar got a confused look from at least two cab drivers:
Tardebigge? Where's that?
Luckily they found a driver with a road map, so Mark, Ben, Finbar and I got into his cab. Mike, Rizwan and John had to get into the cab behind, their driver having no idea where we were going. Their driver decided to follow ours and eventually all seven of us arrived at Tardebigge in the two cabs. After a bit more conferring between cab drivers, and a lot of help from Ben and the paperwork we'd been sent when we booked, we even found the side road down to the boat hire base.
After thanking and paying the cab drivers, we unloaded all our stuff and Mark and Finbar went into the Anglo-Welsh boat hire reception. After deciding that waiting in the rain wasn't much fun, the rest of the group followed them in. Mark and Finbar were told that there was something wrong with the boat we'd booked, so a different boat had been arranged. This problem turned very much in our favour – the new boat was fifty percent longer, with room for two more people. We were quite happy with this change of plan and, once the Anglo-Welsh staff had finished cleaning and tidying our new narrowboat, we carried the shopping we'd ordered into our boat: the almighty Canterbury. Sixty-eight foot (over twenty-one metres) of canal-faring deep-blue, trimmed with red. Not for this narrowboat the unseemliness of a hand-painted owner's name, or the poor-fitting scar of a company logo. Just a plate with the name Canterbury, and the British Waterways registration number.
An Anglo-Welsh staff member came onto the Canterbury to show us how to run the boat. He stopped suddenly to laugh when he saw the fridge:
You've got your oven there, just open the door, turn on the gas, and make sure it lights at the back. Here's your refrigerator, and inside there's plenty of… he stopped, eyes bulged as he saw it stacked-out with cans of beer, packets of cheese, and cartons of milk.
Oh, he laughed.
I see you already know that there's plenty of room. Moving on…
When he got to the controls of the ship, no one was really paying attention. We were all too eager to set off. None of us had realised that we'd need a briefing before taking control. It all seemed blatantly obvious. Just turn on the engine and steer the thing. However, suddenly now being shown how to warm the engine, rev it until it was ticking over, switch gear into drive, monitor the power supply, activate the 240-volt inverter, run the central heating, check the water and oil levels and clean the propeller, we all stood agape. Particle physics seemed like a welcoming prospect against this onslaught of vital information. However, we were saved. Each boat comes with a full user manual, including guides to the features of a canal narrowboat, Dos and Don'ts of steering, and what to do when problems arise. Safe in the knowledge that we'd work it out eventually, most of us went into the living area, leaving the Anglo-Welsh guy to start the engine and show Mark and Ben how to steer. He took us one way, then back to the hire base, then abruptly said:
This thing isn't going to steer itself. With that he wished Mark and Ben a good week and jumped off onto one of the boats tied up at the hire base, waved goodbye, and left Ben to guide the boat along the beginnings of a long journey.
While Ben and Mark oversaw the steering, the rest of us settled into the new boat. Finbar decided, on first entering the narrowboat, that he would have one bed in the cabin at the front of the boat and that I might as well have the other bed in the same area. This was probably because he saw that the next cabin along boasted a cramped little bunk-bed. Mark and Ben at first seemed happy with that bunk-bed, Ben getting the lower bunk which he soon discovered would make a coffin look pretty spacious.
In the central area of the boat lived the kitchen area with its refrigerator, oven, and worktops. This was the largest area on the boat and at each end was a seating area with a large, cushioned seating unit and table. These seating units also converted into double beds. Mike reserved one double bed for himself; Rizwan the other double.
At the back of the boat was another cabin with a bunk-bed. John had the whole bunk-bed to himself, and, not surprisingly, he chose the top bunk, him and Mike using the bottom bunk to leave personal belongings on like some mattress-shelf. Between the living area and each sleeping area was a bathroom with toilet. It seemed positively incredible to me that a holiday boat had two toilets and showers when many houses don't, but this astonishing fact didn't seem to excite anyone else.
Pearson's Canal Companion says:
Tardebigge represents a boater's Rite of Passage. Once you have tackled this flight which, coupled with the neighbouring six at Stoke, amount to thirty-six locks in four miles, other groups of locks, however fiendish, however formidable, pale into insignificance. And I didn't know it at the time, but the guide was right. After Tardebigge, every set of locks seems like a relief, even if there are ten of them, even if they are deep.
And we didn't get long to lay about on the cushioned seats or choose which of the toilets to urinate into, for, ten minutes after setting off, Ben brought us to the first of those many locks that we'd encounter that day. If you've never heard of such a thing as a canal lock before you'll want to read this bit. You see, water tends to stay level. If it's not on a level, it flows until it is level. This poses a bit of a problem for canals traversing hilly areas: how to go up and down gradients without the water all flowing away? The cunning engineers of yester-century worked it out by designing the thing called the lock. A lock comprises of two large, wooden gates. The water level inside the section enclosed by these two gates can be altered by opening paddles using the steel paddle-keys that come with the boat. Opening a set of paddles on one gate causes water to flow through or under the gate, causing the water level to even out either side of that gate. We were heading west, and the locks we now faced would be taking us across downhill gradients. This meant making the water level inside the lock equal to the higher level we were at, opening the first gate, steering our boat into the lock, closing the gate, then opening the paddles on the second gate to lower the water level inside the lock. Once the water level was lowered to match that beyond, the second gate could be opened, and we could pull out of the lock and carry on… to the next one where the same procedure had to be followed. After leaving a lock you have to make sure both gates are closed, and all the paddles are down (so no water is unnecessarily flowing downstream).
That first day, heading west from Tardebigge, we passed through those thirty-six locks, dropping a total of 259 foot. This meant a lot of work, and a lot of collisions with lock gates and concrete banks by the inexperienced new crew. Typically one lock took two people between four and eight minutes depending on if the water level inside the lock is the same as your water level on approach. If it's not you have to wait for the lock to fill before you can open the first gate. We set off from Tardebigge at about three o' clock in the afternoon, and it was about ten o' clock in the evening when we got through all those locks to arrive at our first stop, the place we were to stay for the night.
At the time I didn't know the name of that first stop and the ignorance didn't bother me. But now, looking at a canal map, I can tell you that the first stop was close to a place called Stoke Works, five or six miles away from Tardebigge. Ben had designed the schedule so that we stop each night in a place with a pub, a British Waterways water supply, and mooring areas to tie up on. All was going well. We'd made the first stop before dusk had fallen, and were therefore on schedule. Unfortunately no one seemed to be able to stop the engine. Five minutes reading the Anglo-Welsh boat manual, and a lot of conferring got us nowhere. I stood about looking useless while they tried their best, and eventually they had to ask a passer-by for help. It seems everyone along the canals is very familiar with the waterways, and the passer-by did his best to stop the engine, not once commenting on the boat. Five minutes later and no luck. Taking the keys out did nothing. They couldn't just use the power isolation knob to cut power to the whole boat because then the power to the refrigerator and lights would fail. We began to think that the damned boat was possessed, until the passer-by found the PULL TO STOP ENGINE knob. With one yank the engine softly wound down into silence. We thanked the passer-by, who seemed to think the event was as funny as we did, and then locked up the boat.
To my genuine surprise, we didn't stay in the pub until closing time. In fact, we only bought one round, found out that the pub meals had finished serving hours ago, and then headed back to the boat where Ben and Finbar prepared a meal. Then we started laughing at the fact that the private party in the function room at the pub was making less noise with its entire sound system than our boat was making with its one radio and two small speakers. And the crew of the Canterbury was also doing a good job of making noise.
The day had been going smoothly, and everyone had enjoyed the experience so far. Then the trouble began. You see, as Rizwan was so late an addition, a problem had apparently arisen with the supply of duvets. So when Finbar and I discovered that there was no bedcover for Finbar's bed, he simply shrugged and said,
It's okay, don't worry. I'll go and nick Mike's.
And so he did. At least he thought he did. I realised otherwise:
Whose bed did you take that from? I asked, already sure of the answer.
The first one on the way from here to the kitchen, Finbar replied, laying his newly acquired bedcover.
Oh, shit, I grumbled
That's not Mike's, that's Rizwan's. He's gonna be pissed.
Oh. Finbar paused for a moment, then shrugged it off.
Oh, it doesn't matter. No one knows it was me.
Finbar, I saw you take that, Ben grinned.
Oh, Ben, shut up. I didn't get one.
Okay, Ben said, still laughing.
Soon Mark was finished brushing his teeth and he settled into bed, turning the light off soon after.
We were about to return his wish for a pleasant sleep when suddenly there was an almighty yell:
Where's my fucking bedcover?
It was Rizwan. He was more confused than annoyed, but he was clearly annoyed none the less.
Finbar closed his eyes and moaned.
Oh, God. Shut up, Rizwan.
Ben leant out of his confined sleeping area, said almost too loudly,
You better tell him you've got it, Finbar.
Shut up, Ben. Just tell him we didn't see anything. We've all got one duvet, Finbar whispered in a panic, gesturing madly about the sleeping areas,
he can't complain that we've got it.
Rizwan stormed up to our end of the boat, repeated:
Where's my fucking bedcover?
We don't know, Riz, I said as though honest.
I didn't see anything, blurted Finbar, a little less calmly.
He looked suspiciously at Finbar, turned and stormed off to the other end of the boat to confront Mike and John. In the distance, but still loud, we heard:
Where's my fucking bedcover?!
This same pattern carried on for ten minutes, Finbar getting more nervous, Ben getting closer to dumping Finbar in it, Mark getting further from sleep, and me getting closer to homicide every time he returned to our sleeping area.
Where's my fucking bedcover?!? his chant was now a furious scream.
Rizwan, just use your fucking sleeping bag! I yelled.
I didn't bring one, he lied.
You knew you were supposed to be sleeping on the bare floor, you must have brought a sleeping bag!
That's not the point, I've got a double bed now, and I want my fucking bedcover!!!
He turned to go to the other end of the boat to repeat his patrol, so I yelled:
Rizwan, use your fucking sleeping bag now, or I'll wring your fucking neck!
He stopped, muttered:
Oh, well I won't do that, then, making it clear he didn't care what I threatened him with. He stormed off to the back of the boat, yelled his maddening question once more, and then stopped. We heard him talking to Mike and maybe John, then he didn't ask the question again. After threatening to kill Rizwan, and calling Ben scum for trying to dump Finbar in the shit I was fairly unpopular in my sleeping area, but that's a situation I'm used to. So me and Finbar talked quietly for a while, me frequently predicting that Rizwan would start yelling again any minute, and Finbar persuading himself and me that Rizwan would be quiet now. After a long while of silence, I realised that Finbar was right. Then I realised that the rest of the boat was now asleep. I went to the bathroom nearest our sleeping area once more and then tried to sleep, cursing the day that Rizwan became part of the crew.