After the familiar morning oblivion cleared, I made my way to the back of the boat. I found out that Mark had purchased a new water-tank cap, because the gushing result of opening a central paddle meant that our water tank was getting contaminated with canal water. I also found out that, as we were four hours behind schedule, all stops were written off unless absolutely necessary. It was imperative that we get to a pub with a TV in time to see England play Argentina in that evening's World Cup match. All else would have to be abandoned.
At least, that was the way that most of the crew felt. I was not bothered whether I missed the match or not, and John really didn't care. But the others were happy to agree to omit all the stops between here and that day's final (and now only) target: Swindon.
Things were running smoothly until, on reaching Kidderminster Lock, Finbar was too curious to see for himself the result of opening one of the ominous central paddles, so he cranked it open quickly before I, John and Rizwan had got inside the front. With the front doors of the boat still open, a huge and panic-causing white fog of wetness engulfed the front of the narrowboat. As we threw ourselves back inside into the front sleeping cabin, water arced in through the doors, saturating the floor for a metre and a half, trickling down the sides of the bed to be absorbed by our mattresses. I and John weren't quick enough in our retreat and we suffered sodden legs and shoes, although Rizwan, who was already on his way back into the boat before the flood, got away dry, a fact he found most amusing.
Thankful that my very-not-waterproof camera hadn't been assailed by the rampant canal water, I stepped back outside onto the front of the boat.
Finbar you bloody idiot! Wait until the fucking doors are closed!
Why? Finbar asked, genuinely perplexed.
Didn't you see that?! I gasped.
What? Did some water get in?
Finbar, you've now got a bloody waterbed. The floor's soaking. It's gonna stink of algae by tonight.
There is no algae in these canals, Finbar said. I decided he was probably right. He'd done A-Level Biology; I hadn't.
You know what I mean. It'll have that awful canal water smell.
Alright, I'll come and dry it up.
Finbar was surprised when he finally saw the state of our sleeping area. The beds were just about safe, but the floor was wet to the point that it squelched. You could skid almost frictionless across its slick new texture. Finbar answered this problem by slapping down newspaper all over the floor. Soon it looked like we were to sleep in a hamster cage, damp-looking patches of The Mirror poking up through sections of dry paper, muddy stains on the area around the door where people had come in from the wet front of the boat.
But we continued on, happy to keep going. Until Mike and John decided they wanted to buy a few more postcards. They liked postcards. They'd already sent one to a former computing teacher, addressing him by a much-hated nickname and then using an Arabic phrase (taken from one of the magazines) that translates to 'A thousand dicks up your arse'. Proof, surely, that men's magazines are actually educational.
They were going to get off during our stop in a small town called Kinver, which seemed a promising stop in the search for postcards, as Pearson's Canal Companion says:
All the shops (and there's a good choice for such an otherwise small village) congregate along the main street. Galleries and gift shops rub shoulders with a pair of 'Early-Late' shops.
They made their intentions known to Mark, and Mark said firmly:
Well we can't stop for long. We might stop for fifteen minutes, max. They were happy with this.
We passed through Wolverley, Cookley and a few more locks, and soon were alighting to work on opening Kinver Lock. Mike and John got off and Mark, displeased with our progress, yelled out:
Don't get off, we're too behind schedule.
It's alright, John said.
Carry on, we'll catch up.
And that seemed fine enough to everyone. It's not a joke to say that you can catch a canal narrowboat on foot. They really aren't crafts capable of any great speed. Just great momentum.
Mike and John (and, for an indecisive moment, Finbar) headed off to find the congregation of shops. Finbar returned a minute later. I again noted that Finbar seemed fed up, but I wasn't sure why. Thinking about it presented several suggestions, as we'd all been getting pretty verbal on him for flooding the boat.
Soon we were done with the lock, and pulling out into the canal. No sign of Mike or John.
Shall we bother waiting? I asked Mark.
No, Mark said, adamant.
We have to get to the pub by seven o' clock.
A Satanic little grin possessed my face. I found this situation quite amusing. Had I been in control of the boat, I probably would have pulled over and waited, but I wasn't in control of the boat, and that made me free to laugh at the misfortune of others. Mark seemed not to have any wicked glee, though. He had a determined, steely gaze that pointed straight ahead, seeing forward to whatever pub in Swindon we intended to spend the evening. He would not risk missing vital minutes of the match to wait for people that could catch us by simply jogging along the tow path beside the canal.
After a while I wondered if Mike and John had done something stupid like get lost, or go the other way down the canal. That would be even funnier, although I knew it would cause a big problem, and I didn't imagine that either of them would be in too good a mood whenever we next saw them.
But they found us. Even walking without exertion they overtook us, and then stepped onto someone's boat to wait for us to pass close by.
Are we gonna pull over? I asked.
Not on this bend, Mark said.
They'll not like that.
I don't care, they can walk a bit further. There's a lock down here soon. Again he showed no sign of enjoyment in his decisions. Finbar and Rizwan, who had joined the steersman and navigator, however, had big grins and comments like:
No, don't pull over here, there's a lock around the corner. Ha, look at them. They think we're stopping for them.
Go to the lock down there! Finbar yelled at the land-bound.
It's not far now.
After about five minutes of cruising, John and Mike walked off ahead to find this lock. We arrived at Hyde Lock to see the two of them standing on the bank in front of it with big smiles, looking pleased with themselves. We realised that the lock must already be fit to open, and that they were exacting their revenge by refusing to open the gate. This was so stupid a plan that I knew that it must have been John's idea. Though I might be wrong, but I deemed it unlike Mike to take action against people treating him badly in this manner. That wasn't Mike's style. John, however, would certainly feel the need to demand apology, or perhaps demand that we let him back onto the boat and get someone else to do the damned lock.
Open the gate, Mark shouted across to them, not suspecting at first that they were playing silly-buggers. Soon he realised they were finding this amusing.
Open the fucking gate!
John, I yelled.
Stop being a fucking prick.
John just smiled, rocked back and forth on his heel, satisfied to see that we were making ourselves hot and stressed. Even Mike seemed to be smirking now.
That's it, Mark fumed.
Get the fucker's magazine.
What? I asked.
Finbar, Mark said sternly,
get his fucking car magazine.
Finbar obediently disappeared into the boat, returning a minute later with John's copy of Auto Trader.
Thank you. Mark held the magazine up in the air, front cover displayed clearly for John.
Open the gate, or your shitty magazine goes for a swim!
As though attacked in a weak spot by an unexpected enemy, John crumpled. Immediate surrender followed, and John signalled to Mike to open the gate, the two of them heading up the bank.
Unbe-fuckin-lievable, I gasped, genuinely awe-struck that such a thing could cause the smile to fall from John's face, and in the same second force him to give up his stand.
After opening the lock, and passing through to the other side, Mike and John didn't manage to get on to the moving boat, too busy closing the second gate behind us.
Oy! Oy! Rizwan spurted excitedly,
carry on without them. He giggled.
Mark was clearly thinking about it.
Don't, I warned, not wanting to see escalating levels of drama like the scene before the lock.
Let them on this time, or they'll sulk real fucking bad.
Mark didn't take much persuading, and he pulled the boat in. Still Mike and John seemed to find it difficult to board, so Mark had to crash the rear of the boat into the bank. Eventually they boarded, Mike muttering a little greeting as he stepped up onto the boat, John simply passing into the living area without words. Later, once it was again safe to talk of the stop at Kinver, they told us that they'd not even been able to find the shops. After all the nonsense, they were still without postcards.
Our race to get to Swindon wasn't helped by the shallow, heavily wooded regions of canal after Stourton Junction. Finbar managed to steer himself into just about every overhanging branch and then ground the front of the boat in the rich, silty water near the bank. This caused most of the crew to leap onto the roof of the boat wielding the wooden poles, which would be forced into a solid point on the bank, then two or three people on each pole would push against them. After a lot of straining and cursing the boat finally began to slide away from the bank, and Finbar went back to steering himself into tree branches. For about fifteen metres, after which distance he managed to get both ends of the boat grounded. After an even longer struggle we were free again, and Finbar was booted away from the tiller.
We didn't make it to Swindon, instead abandoning hope of getting there when it had gone seven and the match had already started and we were still three quarters of an hour away. So Mark and Finbar checked the Canal Companion maps and set our new landing point as Greensforge. I sat in the living area trying to get a solid picture out of the onboard television set, but the small, low aerial was not giving the UHF waves any reception, so I gave up after we'd moored and everyone was aboard grabbing their stuff. Finbar was at the front of the boat filling the water tank. I again had the unappreciated task of making sure everyone knew that we could not stay where we were overnight (a British Waterways facilities point), and they agreed that we'd move the boat after the football match.
Finbar left the hose filling our water tank and then we rushed off, over a road bridge and straight into a pub called The Navigation. Although we got some strange looks from people not expecting seven young men from down south, we soon lost our novelty value, and people returned their piercing stares to the small television set in a corner by the door. We soon took on similar appearance, except myself and John. While I was mildly interested in the final result, the play didn't really bother me. And John was paying no attention, instead trying to force his way into my attention by starting a conversation. I talked at first, but was surprised to actually get drawn into the passions of the small crowd in the pub. At first I was watching the reactions of the crowd more than I was watching the play, but as time ran out and the score was still two on each side, I took an interest in the game itself. A player called Beckham got himself sent off by attacking an opponent, we scored a goal but it was disallowed for no apparent reason, and the referee seemed consistently biased against our team. Though, I don't know most of the rules so I could have been mistaken.
Eventually time ran out, then extra time ran out and still the teams were drawn. So as John read the copy of FHM someone had got from the boat for him at his request, the match went to penalties. We lost (and therefore went out of the tournament) when the last of five penalty shots failed to hit home. The commentators went mad, the English team went into depression, and the Argentinians started celebrating on the spot. The crowd in The Navigation cried out in despair, almost all of them leaving the second it was over. We didn't stay long after that, either. Heading back to the boat, cursing and swearing and declaring the referee to be a wanker, I realised that Mark had taken the loss very seriously. He walked along now in his red, three-lions England shirt, carrying the English flag with a dark, sad look on his face, clearly let down. I'd never seen this sort of reaction to football first hand, and it seemed strange now.
We all boarded the boat briefly before I, Mark, Ben and Finbar decided we should move the boat a little down the canal to an overnight mooring point. The four of us got off the boat and walked down the tow path with a torch until we found a clear area in which to park. Finbar and Ben headed back to the boat with the torch, leaving myself and Mark standing on the tow path in the pitch dark.
Mark spoke, dulled by alcohol, dejected by the night's result:
I can't believe we got knocked out by the Argentineans.
Again I marvelled at the effect of the national team's loss. Mark was clearly depressed, and I tried to lift him out of it.
Well, I don't know much about football, but that ref. seemed more than slightly biased to me.
Fucking referee, Mark murmured.
Was it just me, or was he letting Argentina get away with anything, but giving us yellow cards for just tackling?
It wasn't you. He was against us.
What does that make him? I asked, unable to suppress a smile. I knew what the answer would be.
A FUCKING WANKER! Mark yelled loud into the dark night.
Too right, I agreed, suddenly aware that it felt like I was rocking back and forward relative to the trees on the other side of the canal. This side-effect of living on a moving boat was disturbing, and it forced me to be too alert. I checked that it wasn't just me:
Does it feel like we're rocking back and forth to you?
Mark replied, but without his usual zest.
Yeah, it does. Again he sighed loudly before muttering,
I can't believe we're out of the World Cup.
Ah, well, I murmured softly.
How else would you have it. We can't have been the best team if we got knocked out already.
Yeah, but if Croatia had come first in their group then we'd have played them tonight.
True, but if we didn't play Argentina tonight, we'd play them eventually, or a team better than them. We still wouldn't win. I kept my tone calm, objective, trying to reason with his line of 'what ifs'.
But we might have made it to the final, or the semi-final, instead of getting knocked out tonight.
I could see where he was going, now.
Ah, to be beaten by the winner instead of going out in the second round.
A moment passed, and I realised that I could now see perfectly in the dark. Mark sighed again, once more muttered his disbelief.
We heard our narrowboat before we could see it, the grizzled diesel engine tearing up the air as it chugged the boat towards us. The boat pulled up and we tied it in, then boarded the back of the boat. I saw John leaning right over the side of the boat. As the rest of us went inside, I asked in a whisper:
What's John doing?
Being sick. Had too much to drink, Ben said.
I was surprised.
But he wasn't even drunk. He only had two ciders. I remembered then that Strongbow is more alcoholic than beer.
We all sat in a seating area, without John, and talked for a minute. Mark was soon too depressed to talk, so he said goodnight and within seconds was in his bed, sleeping off the misery. The others began to take to the idea, and soon Rizwan wanted his bed to himself. So we had to leave the seating area. Mike went to the seating area that was his bed, and Finbar, Ben and myself went to the end sleeping cabin, where Finbar tried to sleep and Ben talked for a few minutes before I kicked him out and turned the light off. But we talked awhile, though Finbar was too tired this night to have our chatting disturb him, and he fell soundly asleep.