While I was still dead to the world, and the world was dark to me, Mark and Finbar stopped the boat at Swindon for fifteen minutes to buy a newspaper and some supplies. Finding them at the tiller I assumed we'd only just started moving, and I was disturbed to discover I'd slept through a stop. But it didn't bother me long. Soon I was called upon to help Finbar get the narrowboat through Bratch Locks, the most elaborate-looking lock passage I'd seen yet.
The Canal Companion says:
Despite initial impressions, Bratch Locks are not a 'staircase'. They are, in fact, three quite separate ordinary locks telescoped together, rendering it impossible to pass oncoming boats once they have begun to move up or down the flight.
Luckily we were already into the lowest lock just before another boat arrived on the other side, and the lock keepers made sure the oncoming narrowboat did not enter the system. I and Finbar opened and filled the three locks, rising our boat over thirty foot in total, our boat soon pulling away at the top. I was unhappy to be working these locks, because I deemed Bratch Locks an interesting picture, and I was outside in the fresh air while my cameras were in the boat.
Our course passed us through Staffordshire and towards the West Midlands. Compton became our next stop because the canal maps showed a supermarket symbol, and we spotted a hand-painted notice board next to the mooring area that read: 'PUMP OUTS £6'. We'd been led to believe that pump outs cost ten pound, so we agreed to stop here and take advantage of this excitingly good-value offer.
While Mark talked to the people at the mooring area about doing the pump out, the rest of us headed off in search of the shopping area. We found a Spar outlet and headed in to get the essentials, such as Loaded (another tasteful men's magazine), and six litres of Coca-Cola because the supply of Coke on the boat was almost depleted.
As I was painfully low on camera film now, I looked at the prices in the store. Five pound for one film was excessive, so I decided to wait until we reached the day's big stop: Wolverhampton, and look for a branch of Jessops, or some other photographic specialist where they'd do special deals on film. It just meant I'd have to save what I had left for life-changing photo opportunities, instead of rapid-fire shots of the crew preparing the dinner.
On the way back from the Spar, Finbar and Ben went into a frozen food store. The rest of us continued back to the boat to see that Mark had finished organising the pump out of the boat's sewage tanks and this task had been done by the people at the mooring point. Now he was filling the water tank. We dumped the shopping all over the kitchen area, and sat about reading Loaded.
After everyone was back aboard the Canterbury, Mark and Ben sat calculating how much everyone owed for the shopping and the pump outs.
When Ben demanded some money I'd not expected to be asked for, I inquired:
What's that paying for?
We went to the freezer shop and got some apple puddings, Finbar said, showed me a receipt.
I frowned, turned to Finbar.
I'm not paying for this, I said matter-of-factly.
I don't eat any of the stuff shown on this receipt.
Ben and Finbar's faces spoke of great disapproval as they exchanged glances. While Finbar looked almost hurt, Ben just seemed to conceal a great deal of loathing for me.
Ben tutted at me, then muttered something, shaking his head. They finished counting their coins and then someone burst into the activity of making lunch.
Later on, deciding I really didn't want hateful looks directed at me for the rest of the week from two people I was glad I knew, I went to the back of the boat. Once there, I apologised to Finbar for bluntly refusing to pay for the food he'd so thoughtfully picked out, despite my knowing that the general policy was to split all costs. He said it was okay with a glum look on his face, and then informed me that Ben was the person who paid for that load, so I should go see him. That I did, although I wasn't overly optimistic about the reception I'd get.
Hi, Ben, I ventured on entering the front bedroom area.
What? Ben threw back.
I've come to say sorry for not paying for the apple pies and desserts. I'll give you the money if you want.
Ben's scowl softened, and he sighed:
Doesn't matter, I'm not bothered.
No, I don't mind, really. It's just... next time check with me to see if I actually like the stuff you're buying for us, alright?
Yeah, you've got a point, Ben said.
We didn't do it deliberately, but you weren't with us, and we thought everyone would like apple pie.
Yeah, I said, smiling.
Sorry. I'll give you the money, though.
Nah, Ben said, apparently not now seeing me as quite so evil.
You keep it. It was only 70p each. Oh, and if you like ice cream, you better have some of mine – it's melting too quickly in the fridge.
Quite impressed that Ben not only seemed to be in a better mood with me, but was also offering me his surplus ice cream, I headed into the kitchen and took out the melting food.
Later in the day we met with Aldersley Junction, took a right and immediately confronted the first of twenty-one locks we'd have to pass through to get to Wolverhampton. I helped at first, then ducked inside for a while. My absence did not go unnoticed, and soon I was called out to assist Rizwan while someone else went inside. Again I was now missing the chance to take what I saw as a good photo, but continued walking down the tow path with Rizwan to lock number fourteen. We were about to sink the lock to allow us to open the gates when we saw another boat coming from the other direction. A woman popped out from behind the back of the boat and yelled:
Hi! Can you open the gate for us?
Having nothing better to do while this narrowboat used the lock, I and Rizwan had no problem with assisting the boat. Once we shut this boat into the lock and began to sink it to the lower level, the woman at the back of the boat spoke to us.
Thanks for helping with the lock, she said.
We're only two women and there's some guys on bikes back there throwing bricks, so we decided to shoot through. Thanks... thanks. Bye. We opened the lower gate to let their boat through, said goodbye to the woman on the boat. Then I shot Rizwan a glance, said with a smile:
Great. Mad bikers.
Rizwan also grinned.
Don't worry. We can take them. He held his paddle key like a steel assault weapon. I knew Rizwan would have no problem getting enjoyment from punishing a group of thugs, but I wasn't sure what use I'd be in a fight combining bricks, martial arts, and steel paddle keys. Still, it'd be a laugh. We let the Canterbury through and carried on past Mark and Finbar to the next lock. At some point Mike joined us, and the three of us stood about in the late orange sun, sometimes talking, sometimes enjoying the serenity.
It smells like the grass has been cut near here, Rizwan suggested, sniffing the air.
I know the grass has been cut near here, Mike said, drawing air violently into his congested nasal passages to exaggerate the problems he was having with hay-fever.
I'm a walking grass-cutting detector.
Rizwan's eyes snapped wide suddenly. He swore blind that he saw some kids on bikes opening lock paddles with their hands to ruin the flow of the canal. I watched them for a while, but didn't see the kids doing any harm. Rizwan held his paddle key up with a barbaric look about him, and seemed disappointed when the kids rode off into the grassy playing areas uphill.
Down the canal, Mark and Finbar were busy emptying the rubbish into a wheely bin on the West bank. Sadly, when it came time to put our swing-lid bin back onto the boat, Mark got lazy and simply flung the entire plastic bin onto the hard floor in front of the tiller where John was steering. The plastic container cracked, developing large holes in several places, and now we were short of a bin. They found this hilarious, of course, leaving me trying to imagine Mark throwing the bin carefully onto the back of the boat. I couldn't work out quite how he thought it was going to land gently onto a steel vessel, but some things will always remain mysteries. Such as why it was also Mark that had lost the water tank cap, and a paddle key, and at least two pint glasses.
At about lock number eight, I boarded again, leaving Mike and Rizwan to continue the lock-opening. I had very little film left, and kept a critical eye out for what to shoot with those remaining frames. At about lock two I took a couple of shots with a wide-angle lens to capture the industrial feel of this area, a couple of shots of a worn-looking factory taken from the roof of the narrowboat while Mark and Finbar filled the lock that I was in. By this point I was glad to see that the others had felt the need to capture a few photographic memories, and now Finbar asked me to get his camera for him. Of course, he still scowled and jokingly told me to sod off when I waved my lens towards him. At least I hope he was joking. Either way he still didn't like being the subject of a picture, and really didn't like the portraits I kept taking of the crew.
Soon we were through the locks, little thanks to John or myself who'd stayed on the boat most of the time. Pulling in to moor, I used the last three shots on my last roll of film to photograph the area around where we moored. Now out of film, I realised I'd miss any interesting shots that would occur in the evening.
The day before, Finbar had found a J.D. Wetherspoon's Pubs leaflet, and had noted that there was a Wetherspoon's pub in Wolverhampton. That, he and Mark decided, would surely be the best pub as it would do low-price meals and good-value drinks. I was fairly indifferent, but I was looking forward to a good meal one way or the other. I'd been surviving off of halves of pizza, and cornflakes and was definitely ready for a complete meal.
So we got ourselves together, locked the boat and headed off towards the town centre. I was all out of film, but John wasn't: carrying his compact grey camera bag which held his own SLR camera, he would be able to capture some pictures of whatever the night turned into. The others did not at all like the idea of being seen in a pub next to a guy taking pictures with so conspicuous a device, so they gave him arched-eyebrow looks of disapproval every now and again, hoping he'd pick up on their hinting. John, however, wouldn't have got the hint if they'd written it on a fist and punched him in the eye.
Now we walked through the streets of Wolverhampton, and Mike and Mark further developed the latest daft behaviour that had begun at the tiller over the last two days.
I'm Cap'n Birdseye! Mike bellowed in his best impression of a grizzled sea captain.
Mark was having none of this.
No, I be Cap'n Birdseye!!! he argued, equally craggy a voice.
Then, somehow, it became a matter of seafood:
Come get some o' Cap'n Birdseye's Fishy Minges, oh arrrr! Mike growled.
Rizwan was enjoying the interplay. Only one thing for it:
John! I think someone's panicking, he said, a mischievous grin telling us he knew exactly how John would respond to such encouragement.
DON'T PANIC!!! John clamoured, instantly achieving weary grimaces from most of the group. I and Rizwan laughed, which encouraged John further. It amazed me that John could be so easily drawn into doing something he must surely realise annoyed half the group.
We found a street map and Finbar looked for a road name he'd found on his Pubs leaflet. Just as Finbar decided he knew where we were going, John decided to photograph the street map, and the rest of the group decided not to wait. John presently came jogging up the street to catch up with us, and we all carried on searching for the street we wanted. It didn't take too long. After going down the wrong street the wrong way, Ben forced us to turn around and we finally found the Wetherspoon's pub we'd been looking for: The Moon Under Water.
This was a nice looking pub, vast in its floor space and accommodating in its comfortable seating. We took a large corner booth by the window, and soon had ordered food and drinks. The burger and chips I was presented with were delicious, especially for such a good price, and most of the others seemed to enjoy their food. Although Mark and John were greatly displeased to find that the mixed grill meal they both wanted was unavailable, cursing throughout the night:
Where's my fucking mixed grill!
John took a few distracting flash shots, a few even more distracting mechanical self-timer shots, and then spent some of his flash batteries by firing the flash under the table repeatedly to confuse the group. All in all this did not amuse Mark and Ben, and Finbar was again raising one eyebrow to achieve a disparaging look. John seemingly didn't catch the looks, and if he did, he chose not to heed their meaning.
The evening degenerated suitably when a trio took up seats not five metres away from us. All was fine until they started singing so loudly and out-of-key that Mark and Mike almost pissed themselves laughing. Finbar stared in disbelief trying to work out if they were drunk or not. John got excited when realisation hit our group, yelling:
Oh my God, they're spastics!!!
I believe I had the same grimace on my face as Finbar then, after John's latest too-loud comment.
Shut up, John! Finbar hissed through clenched teeth.
Mark started mimicking the terrible duet that was emanating from the group of three's table, and they noticed us. Laughed at us even. Mark and Mike were rolling about in hysterics, everyone else was laughing or making bizarre noises aimed at the trio. Suddenly the excitement proved too much for John and he initiated a bastard fight, as done so many times already during the week:
Mike you bastard! John uttered in mock disgust.
Errrrr, John! I think you'll find that you're the bastard, Mike retaliated in a pretended 'set-the-record-straight' tone that only Mike could pull off.
You're the bloody bastard!! John said, louder, verging on a shout.
You're the fucking bastard!!! Mike shouted, louder again.
Bloody bastard!!! John shouted, raising the volume higher.
You're the only bastard around here! Mike yelled.
BASTARD! John yelled, so much fake-aggression that he was almost standing now.
FUCKING BASTARD! Mike yelled.
BAAAASSSTTTARRRDDD!!! Mike screamed, shuddering with theatrical fury.
BAAA John rumbled, a half grin, half frown folding his face up, suddenly stopped by Ben, who complained:
Shut up, John. Not in here.
Bastard, John muttered quietly once more.
John! Ben hissed.
The bastard fight was over, but now Mike hummed:
I'm Cap'n Birdseye!
No, I'm Cap'n Birdseye! Mark yelled in a jagged growl. The two carried on until Finbar was able to get a little sanity restored. Then Mark started laughing at the bizarre singing still coming from the nearby trio. Before it all got further out of control, Finbar and Ben suggested we leave and return to the boat.
We walked back to the boat, via a short stop at a kebab shop, all the way filling the urban night atmosphere with yells from crusty old sea captains, bastard fights and the sound of a breaking pint glass (John's contribution). Rizwan occasionally made a comically psychotic shrieking noise, drawing curious laughter from all.
Once aboard, all drunk out and all ready for sleep, everyone quietened down and went to their own beds. I and Ben talked, Finbar complained sleepily, and all was right with the world.