I woke early, turned down the option of going back to sleep because I wanted to go into Birmingham when everyone was awake. Probably just to get a milkshake and some snacks.
Five minutes later I saw Mark moving in the other sleeping cabin. When he was properly awake, he turned around to see me, then whispered:
What is the bloke going to say tomorrow when he sees this boat? Mark had humour in his voice, but it was still clear he worried that Anglo-Welsh were going to go berserk when they saw the scratches down the side of the boat, the broken bin, the soaking floor, and the various internal damages. I just laughed. I couldn't see much of a problem. We hadn't sunk the boat yet, and to my surprise we'd set nothing alight.
While everyone yawned and fought the temptation to go back to sleep, I brushed my teeth. On the way out of the bathroom I poked my head around the corner to look into the main cabin. Rizwan was actually using his pillow as a bedcover. And he almost fit perfectly under it.
Once the whole crew was awake, my request to go once more into Birmingham was rejected, Mark deciding it better to stay ahead of schedule. So Finbar steered for a while, driving slowly enough that another boat close behind began manoeuvres to overtake. At this point Finbar tired of steering and I took the tiller, determined not to let this other boat overtake while I was driving. So I forced the engine to a better power and picked up speed, cruising at a good rate, refusing to slow down except on the tightest passages, and on the sharpest corners.
We passed a place called Bournville. I suddenly realised that there was a Cadbury chocolate factory to the West. Rizwan noticed too.
Ahhhh, I wanna go to the chocolate factory! I moaned.
Yeah, pull over here, Rizwan commanded.
No, I said.
I can't see anyone else wanting to go to the Cadbury factory.
Yeah, but they give out free chocolate.
What? I gasped.
So we weren't stopping at the chocolate factory, but the people behind us were. Our race was over and they moored right before the train station (decked out in Cadbury's purple with big signs directing visitors to Cadbury World). But we continued on.
I was suddenly informed by Rizwan that the others inside were all furiously cleaning and repairing, tidying and making a list of all damages.
Why? I asked with a disapproving frown.
The boat hire company want the boat back in a tidy state, Rizwan replied.
Yeah, but the boat's not in that much of a state. You say they're washing the floor?
They were, and now I was ordered to pull us over to a water point. We moored and John jumped off the boat to connect the yellow hose to the water tap, using it to wash down the boat while Rizwan and Mike went to find a small shop to buy super-glue to repair simple breakages.
You're washing the top of the boat? I asked, incredulous.
Yeah, John said,
to get all the mud off.
John, they were washing the boat when we got to the boat-hire yard. Why are we doing it?
Just to make it look better.
And show up all the scratches in the paintwork?
Inside was no better from my point of view, with people fussing and moaning about everything, wiping and cleaning and dusting. When Rizwan got back, we both felt the need to escape, so Rizwan returned to the shop and I went with him. We bought the toilet rolls that Mark demanded we look for, and I got an ice-cream and chocolate to keep me going.
Back at the boat, John was satisfied with the job he'd done cleaning the roof and sides, so Ben was using the hose to wash the new plastic bin with. Minutes later and Mark had decided the roof was not clean enough, so John was forced to give it another rinse.
Finally we (more accurately: they) were done with the cleaning. The broom had been repaired, Rizwan reconstructed the damaged blind in the bathroom, the cupboard door had been reattached, and the bathrooms had been washed.
Now Finbar was eager to steer, for we were coming up to something we'd all been curious to see.
Wast Hill Tunnel is the Worcester & Birmingham's longest. It takes around half an hour to pass through and, whilst appearances can be deceptive, there is room to pass oncoming craft inside its gloomy depths. Pearson's Canal Companion.
It does take half an hour to pass through, and at 2726 yards in length (2.5km) the echo down it is quite impressive. Of course, we made full use of this, Mark discovering the effect when he used the boat's horn to signal to any nearby boats. Luckily there were none, so everyone was yelling whatever came to mind just to hear the sound race up and down the tunnel.
Inside the boat I readied my camera. With all internal lights on, and nothing but blackness outside, it felt like late-night. I set up my tripod on the front of the boat, and tried to find a compromise between depth-of-field and shutter time. And failed. Every shot was at least a ten seconds exposure, and the way Finbar and Mark were steering through the straight tunnel, I knew the shots would not work. But I used a dozen-or-so frames trying.
Half-way along the tunnel, Mark noticed that the distance-to-go was painted onto the walls, and he took a new hobby in yelling out how much further was left. He did this every fifteen yards. Rizwan, being at the front of the boat while Mark was at the back, delighted in calling out the distance-to-go before Mark could. In the end they both called it out, the length of the boat meaning that they'd often call out two different values at the same time.
We were heading South now, half-way through the tunnel crossing an invisible county line into Worcestershire. Leaving the tunnel, everyone with a camera handy was inspired to take at least one picture of the surroundings. Trees and bridges somehow mingled around and above the canal to produce a beautiful scene. It didn't last, and soon the enchanting greenery was replaced with standard issue greens and browns over dirty water.
We stopped in the afternoon at Arrowfield Top, near Hopwood. We sat in the pub garden, very-slightly separated from the rest of the group because I wished to sit in the shade to relieve my increasingly sunburnt ears, while the rest of the group sat in the full glare of the sun. Separated from the rest of the group except John, who sat opposite me on my shaded table. John talked about his camera, and asked for advice on what type of lens to buy for it next. I tried to take an interest, but was trying to hard to hear the other group talking. The others made it patently clear they did not approve of John's conversation. Mutterings of
what a freak and
oh my God, he's talking about cameras at the pub weren't concealed too well, though John paid little attention. For a group with so many personality flaws, we were surprisingly intolerant of them.
Soon the sunlit group ignored John altogether, and I sat in silence trying to listen to the conversations of both tables. I realised after some time that Mark and Mike wanted to acquire a Banks's pub garden table umbrella. Mark wanted it for his home garden. Shortly after I started paying attention, Mike decided he wanted a lager table umbrella for his garden, a Fosters umbrella perhaps. I thought the conversation was very amusing. Until I suddenly realised they were serious.
Wait a sec… I objected.
It might not seem like a good point, but that is actually theft.
Oh no, Finbar retorted.
Is it really?
His response had been laced with sarcasm, and now I was getting serious frowns from most of the group. Namely Mark and Ben, whose faces said more to me then than they did the rest of that hour: God, you're always doing this, spoiling our fun. Always moaning.
This didn't stop me, though. As they talked about how to steal the umbrella discreetly, I tried to draw some sense:
How the Hell are you gonna walk that thing to the boat? I tried to look calm, but I knew it wasn't working.
You can't just drag it through the bar and hope they don't notice.
Again Ben's mischievous smile crashed into a tired scowl.
That's why they're looking for a different route, isn't it? He was pissed off, and I decided to throw in one more sentence before holding myself silent.
Okay, but I'm not walking anywhere near you idiots when you've got that thing.
So come back to the boat with me and Finbar, Ben said, still not understanding why I was so over-cautious.
I will do, don't worry, I said.
The plan was for most of us to go back to the boat, while Mark and Mike hung about for a minute, freed the one umbrella (they decided more than one was too risky) and then sloped off with it across a nearby field. Finbar would bring the boat down the canal and pick them up.
We went back to the boat, drove it down the canal, then noticed Mark and Mike up ahead on the tow path. Empty handed. They boarded, and I asked:
What? Is it hidden in a bush down there, then?
No, Mark said.
They're fixed to the ground, and you can't take the umbrellas off their poles.
The peaceful cruise continued along the canal, and a surprisingly short time later we ended up in our target for the day: Alvechurch. Which, according to the Canal Companion,
offers a good range of shops, a Midland Bank, fish & chips and a Chinese.
I was among the group of four sent out on a quick exploration of the place. We were to survey the town to get a feel for the layout before the whole group would head out later that evening. We were especially required to note the positions of such establishments as pubs, and banks. So I set off from the boat, Finbar, Mike and Rizwan with me, heading roughly North before taking a path East into the village. After leaving the rough dirt road we rounded a corner into a residential area. Heading up the street a little we were suddenly assailed by an almighty stench of sewage. This smell remained even when we'd found our way into what constituted the town centre. There was no bank, just a building society none of us had heard of: Birmingham Midshires. As most of us cursed and exclaimed:
What the Hell is Birmingham Midshires? Mike joked that it was an internationally renowned financial company and that coming from quiet ol' London we were the only ones left who'd never heard of it.
This didn't help, and it meant we couldn't draw out any money. Not that it mattered too much. All of the shops had been closed for hours, except for a video rental shop and a fish 'n' chip shop. The town was so lacking in facilities, had such a constricting feel to it, and was so rural that we all looked around in distaste once more before heading back to the canal. We took a different route now, up a steep hill before a long walk along level tarmac road and back to the boat, reporting to Mark our dim view of the village.
Yeah, but you saw a pub, right?
And we had seen a pub, but before we could go for liquid refreshment the washing up had to be done. Mike handled the dishes with great disrelish, muttering and cursing as he scrubbed the bits of food-matter off the ceramic and stainless steel. Knowing that the bits and pieces floating in the washing up tub would block the sink, the window pane in front of the sink was removed, and Mike periodically emptied the washing up tub by pouring it out of the window, or baling out dirty water with a pint glass. He was doing this as a young woman passed the Canterbury, so he shouted:
Quick! We're sinking! Everyone scoop some water out! The young woman passed me at the front of the boat, wearing a big smile. Apparently she liked Mike's sense of humour.
When finishing the washing up, Mike was again using the pint glass to scoop out rancid water, and now he was detailing for anyone who cared to listen the contents of the pint glass before it got chucked liberally over an increasingly polluted area of tow path and canal.
Pea, he murmured, flinging the water and the pea out of the window, quickly scooped up more water.
Chunk of carrot… and again he flung the dirty water boasting its own carrot out of the window.
Bit of… He stopped when he realised what he'd done in time to see the knife bounce off of the bank and splash into the reedy canal-edge.
Oh, shit. Mark! We just… kinda lost a knife.
After Mike had done cleaning the cutlery and loosing it out into the canal, we gathered our stuff, locked the boat and headed towards Alvechurch's thriving metropolitan centre. It was a nice evening, and walking along the long, flat road gave us a sunset view of a scene to the North of hills and houses below an orange sky. Once again the whole group seemed to have taken their cameras, and a few pictures were taken of certain members racing about hyperactively in the warm light. Not long after we reached the end of that particular road and were into Alvechurch centre, we found our way back to a pub we'd seen on our first, quick village survey. Called The Red Lion, it seemed a peaceful, respectable village pub. Really not the sort of place that would seek the custom of a seven-strong group of overexcited eighteen year-olds from London. But we had little alternative, so we went in.
It was a peaceful, quiet village pub. And we weren't quiet village citizens. We were immediately the centre of attention, everyone glancing at us and muttering to one another. But it was a big pub, and we soon disappeared into a corner of it, an area that seemed to be reserved for dining customers. Being the only area still with vacant seats, we sat in this dining room, around a long table, drinking and talking loudly. Again, a camera-flash war broke out, the room lighting up in blinding white every few seconds. This was irritating the people around the room, and the noise we were making didn't help. I suddenly realised that the room was half-empty now, several tables vacated since our arrival.
Let's get some food, Ben said, looking at a menu.
Yeah, Mark said,
get some mussels. Who wants mussels? A quick show of hands revealed that only Ben and Mark wanted mussels, so they went to order. They brought back with them a wooden, red spatula with the number eight painted onto it.
What is that? Finbar asked at some point during Mark and Ben's wait for their meal.
It's so they can identify our table when they bring the food, Mark said.
A young bar waitress brought the plate of mussels over to our table, placed them down cheerfully in front of Mark and Ben.
Fresh from the canal, Ben joked, knocking the smile on the young woman's face.
What? John asked boisterously as the waitress returned to the kitchen.
The food or the waitress? She heard his comment and briefly turned to see where it had come from, a troubled look on her face.
Fuck's sake, John, I said.
Bit fucking louder! She heard that.
John seemed pleased.
Ben and Mark started devouring the contents of the many shells on the plate in front of them.
Are those anything like oysters? I asked.
Yeah, Mark said in-between shells.
So if you eat a bad one…
You'll have diarrhoea for hours, Mark said with a look that told me he was willing to take the risk, sucking down another mussel as soon as he'd finished my thought.
We suddenly noticed that John's attention had been fixed on the wooden spatula for some time. Now he held it, eyes darting furtively before holding it down by his side.
John, what are you doing with that? Ben asked, fingering another shell.
I'm going to steal it, John said, grinning.
Now everyone frowned in disbelief.
Why? I asked.
Why not? John asked, sincerely. He saw nothing strange about his proposal.
John, I turned to him.
What are you going to do with a wooden spatula?
I don't know.
So why are you going to take it?
John was angry now.
Oh, so because we're in a pub with posh lighting and gentle music and fancy menus, we suddenly have so much respect for the place. You didn't care yesterday when you were going to steal a pub umbrella.
John, I did care yesterday, that was a stupid enough idea, but at least they could have used a pub umbrella in their garden. What are you gonna do with a spatula with a big eight painted onto it?
That's not the point, John argued.
We gave up, and turned the conversation to something else. John went to the toilets, and when he was gone a waiter came over to ask if we'd liked the food, and to take away the plates of finished mussels.
Do you want the spatula back? Mark asked, taking it from where John had been sitting and thrusting it toward the waiter.
Uh, I can take it back if you want, the waiter said, a puzzled look on his face.
Yeah, please. Mark handed the spatula over, and the waiter took it away.
John was not happy when he returned. We told him the waiter had asked for it back. John seemed to believe us.
A bastard fight developed, John started loudly cursing the
Bloody inbred northerners, Cap'n Birdseye impressions broke out, and the camera-flashes kept firing. Occasionally a loud belch or fart would join the noise pollution. I realised then that the entire room was empty except for us now. We'd put everyone off their food and drink to such a point that they'd all either left the pub, or moved to the other end of it.
When most of us ran out of money, Mark, Ben and Mike bought themselves one more round, ignoring those of us without cash. After that last half-round we returned to the Canterbury. As we left the pub, John proudly revealed that he had a wooden spatula to keep with him always.
How did you get that back? someone asked just as I noticed the number nine painted onto it.
I took one off another table, John beamed. He either didn't notice or didn't care about the glances we exchanged: (What is wrong with that kid?)
Walking back to the boat, Mark stopped by some random bush to relieve himself, and Mike, John and Rizwan were also lagging behind. From our advanced position along the road, I, Ben and Finbar could hear John yelling
Don't panic! and
You're the bastard! Finbar and Ben moaned, hoping they'd never hear those phrases again. I too was pretty sick of hearing them.
Funny as herpes and twice as difficult to get rid of, I muttered. The three of us began walking at double-rate towards the canal.
I, Ben and Finbar got to the boat well ahead of the other four. We let ourselves in, and came to an agreement that it would be funny to lock the others out. Funny from our point of view at least. Mark didn't see an amusing side, and when he returned to a dark, locked boat without the keys, he knew we'd be inside.
Open up you fucking idiots! he yelled. But only once.
Ben and Finbar and I crept about inside the boat, giggling quietly. Finbar went for a piss, and we could hear him quite effectively missing the toilet bowl (because we wouldn't let him turn on the light and give the game away).
When Mark and Mike began heading back up the tow path to look for us, I told Ben to let Rizwan and John in, knowing we couldn't just stay inside all night in the dark. The idea was that Mark and Mike return to find the other two gone, and then there'd be five of us laughing and whispering quietly inside the boat. But Rizwan didn't care for that joke, and when Ben gently opened the door, whispering:
Come on! Come inside, quietly, Rizwan started screaming:
MARK! MARK! They're here! In the boat!!!
Ben was really not impressed with Rizwan's lack of sportsmanship, so he starting saying some unpleasant things about him. Not many seconds later Mark returned to the boat, stormed inside screaming obscenities and then headed past me to the front of the boat where it sounded like he was beating Ben. Then he came back into the main area, throwing Finbar across the seating area and table, swearing about us the whole time. As though he'd forgotten that I was also an instigator, he didn't yell at me or even glare in my direction.
We settled down into Rizwan's seating area/bed. John said goodnight and went to sleep in his own room at the back of the boat. Mark still swore about Ben and Finbar for a few minutes. A couple of drinks were had by all, and then we went to our own beds.
This night for the first time, Mark stayed awake to join in with the conversations that Ben and I had, and even Finbar wasn't that sleepy. We talked, joked, a camera-flash fight caused the front end of the boat to strobe every two seconds with even Mike and Rizwan charging up and down the boat with cameras. It didn't last long, though, and within ten minutes we were all comfortably in our own beds, chatting again.
After a while things got quieter. I turned to Mark, said:
Hey, you didn't hear that joke last night, did you?
What joke? Mark asked.
I turned to Ben, an uncontrollable grin on my face.
Tell him about the little green man.