Again I awoke to realise that every one else was awake and active. Seeing as my friends know me well, they apparently knew that waking me up prematurely would unleash a semi-comatose, speechless shell of a thing. Better to let me wake of my own accord than face a Bob more unbearably miserable than usual.
So I clambered out of bed onto the carpeted floor and slowly achieved the ability to brush my teeth and get dressed. Then, heading into the kitchen area, greet my fellow crew.
I don't remember who I found there, but I'm fairly sure they were just sitting about reading or eating, with John at the stove frying some bacon or eggs. This morning I was not offered a fried meal so I waited for John to toast some bread under the grill and then consumed a punishing amount of Marmite on toast. The salt burns I received from the Marmite adhering to my top lip caused dry, split skin that was still in poor condition a week later. And it didn't help my mouth or throat either. But it was better than nothing, for the lack of available chocolate snacks was making me hungry, and I didn't know where we were to going to stop that day.
We weren't yet moving, and I remembered that we must still be near Diglis Basin, where John had tried so hard to make an impression the evening before. An impression the shape of steel anchors in narrowboat hull.
After my toast I went to the back of the boat. We were now right into the basin, loosely tied to some buoy against a wall opposite the pub.
What're we doing? I thought we wanted to go through some lock? I enquired.
Yeah, we will, but we can't go until the lock keeper arrives. And there's already a queue formed over there, Mark pointed out.
Actually I might go over and ask what's going on. The lock should be open by now. Mark jumped off the back of the boat onto the concrete behind and headed with Finbar around the basin to the lock. I remembered that the lock ahead was a big bastard, giving access to the River Severn. Big enough to raise and lower the yachts and river boats that for whatever reason had wished to stay in Diglis Basin.
Maybe five minutes later, Mark and Finbar returned with Ben. I hadn't even realised that Ben was off the boat, but now they all headed back together.
The lock keeper's here now. We've got to pull over to there to get ready to go through, Mark said, then breaking into orders:
Get out of the way! Untie the boat.
Ben launched us away from the wall and jumped aboard. Mark switched the throttle out of neutral and propelled the boat gently forward, plenty of room to turn to face the river lock. Now he pulled us up alongside the cluster of boats neatly organised a distance back from the lock. Somehow Mark managed to persuade the queue of boaters that, seeing as we'd been there all night, we were technically first in line. None of the boaters had a problem. It almost seemed like they wanted us to go first and I didn't complain.
At some point someone decided that we were going to share the generously wide lock with a boat proudly flying a couple of foreign flags. The more ignorant members of the crew, namely John, Mike and I, didn't have a clue which nations' flags these were.
Bloody Germans! John said loudly and hopped back inside the boat to get his camera for the event. The more worldly-wise, namely Finbar and Mark, knew that the two flags were the symbols of Sweden and Denmark. This did not stop John and Mike singing things like:
Two world-wars and one world cup, doo-dar, doo-dar! to the tune of Camptown Races, and the wince-inducing:
Ve have vays of getting your sun-loungers!.
Fortunately oblivious to such a sense of European community, the Swedish/Danish boaters carried on going through the lock, the male assisting Finbar and Mike in emptying the lock and then opening the gates. Shortly ahead lay another lock, and our combined force quickly moved us through it while us cheeky (read as lazy) photographers sat on the Canterbury recording the occasion.
During the opening of these locks, Mike lost a paddle key. He's not sure when. He still claims that it was Finbar's fault. Perhaps it was. Either way, the loss was not realised until we were all back on the boat, heading north-east along the River Severn, when the four paddle keys that we should have had suddenly were three. Later that day, Mark would lose another paddle key by leaving on the paddle crank when the paddle dropped suddenly. The crank spun violently and threw the key across a stone floor into a watery grave from where it will perhaps never be recovered.
Looking at the Canal Companion maps we realised that the River Severn is a length of water almost free of locks. Plenty of time to relax while Ben and Mark stayed at the back steering and chatting. After Mark gave up trying to set up the television, I and Rizwan pounced on it and tuned it into BBC 1 so we could watch the early afternoon showing of Neighbours. The small, loose TV aerial provided a very poor signal, and we lost the picture more than several times. In fact, we totally lost sound and picture for the last five minutes, almost certainly meaning we missed a tense cliff-hanger of earth shattering proportions. Still, we could try and use the TV again tomorrow. Now instead, I, Rizwan and John sat at the front of the boat admiring the scenery. Much as Rizwan wanted to see some dead ducks floating disturbingly in the dirty water he had to put up with large groups of the living thing, and as we passed under Worcester Bridge we saw plenty of fresh-water fowl.
The cruising carried on in such a peaceful, relaxing, uneventful manner, the happy and calm crew talking softly amongst themselves about this and that. Peaceful until we came to Bevere Lock.
Somehow I'd taken to steering just up to this point, and as I slowed down to pull alongside the Swedish/Danish boat apparently waiting with others to go through the lock, a bearded man shouted at me so as to indicate that I wasn't slowing rapidly enough. Although, I can't understand his problem – I didn't hit anything. I did, though, overshoot my target landing point, and not wanting to attempt a U-turn or a tedious reversing manoeuvre I gave up the tiller, and Ben chose to steer.
Ben and Mark were told that for some reason we'd not be able to go through the lock for another forty or fifty minutes, and that we may as well pull back a bit and get a round in at the pub, the Camp House, not far back. We agreed and Ben turned us around. I was at the front of the boat now, and noticed that none of us had asked the Swedish/Danish boaters if they'd seen Mike's missing paddle key. But we continued to pull towards the pub and I took a picture of the peaceful scene as we headed into the landing point and joked:
We'll call this the 'Before' picture. Interesting choice of words, for twenty seconds later Ben had ploughed into a section of what looked like floating supermarket pallets. He cursed and pulled back immediately, but we'd already got someone's attention. A woman stood at the top of the high bank, yelled at us:
We'll be wanting your address before you go – that's a private jetty!
We were not happy to hear that. Looking at the construction again, I still couldn't see how it would hold a drifting narrowboat securely but that was not the point. Whatever it was built for, we'd hit it hard with our sixteen ton boat, and now I and John were taking a few photographs of the private jetty just to make sure no exaggerated claims were made about the damage caused by our collision.
Ben landed the boat properly against the visitor moorings and we tied up, locked the boat up and headed into the pub garden, Mark, Ben, Finbar and Mike going into the pub to get a round of drinks and ask for a menu. Curiously, the pub garden boasted its own peacock, a colourful creature which strutted around the garden seeming to have no particular goal. It was not scared nor interested in visitors, and we couldn't see a companion.
Within a few minutes the others reappeared with drinks, and sat down on a table next to ours.
Oh, God, that was so embarrassing, Finbar groaned.
Only because you tried to blame the collision on the tides, Mark added, and Ben again laughed at what apparently was the cause for a lot of laughter for the patrons of the pub.
Tides, Ben smirked.
On a non-tidal section of river. Good one, Finbar.
Oy. Rizwan called, getting no response.
Oy! What did that woman say? Rizwan asked.
Oh, she said she was sorry she yelled, but she's a friend of the person who owns the jetty and she doesn't think he'll be annoyed, but she asked for my address in case we caused any serious damage.
Stupid bitch, muttered John.
John, she could have been a lot less pleasant than that, I added.
I don't care. We didn't mean to hit her stupid jetty.
Did you get a menu? asked Rizwan.
They had brought a menu, and presently we ordered food. While finishing the food, John, Mike and Rizwan were delighted to discover that two ducks sitting on the grass near our table seemed to like the taste of mustard-covered chips. Granted they'd start vibrating wildly after gobbling a chunk of fried potato and yellow sauce, but after half a minute or so they returned to normal, and then returned to our table in hope of receiving another small meal.
I'm not sure that's good for them, I warned, not wanting to see two poisoned ducks added to our growing list of destruction.
John apparently didn't hear:
Look! Look at it shaking its head like that! Give it some more!
The ducks enjoyed this delicacy until the mustard packet ran empty, and then had to content themselves with chunks of plain potato. They liked the food so much they were fighting over it, and John was trying to throw the chips so that each duck got a fair share. It didn't work, as the mallard was faster than its female companion. Then a sneaky sparrow joined the fray, dive bombing into the action and occasionally succeeding to airlift a chunk of potato as big as its head off to some safe place to eat. It returned several times, and the feeding continued until there were almost no chips left.
Finbar and Mark finally finished their pints of ale and then we agreed that the lock must be ready now, so we headed back to the Canterbury. Mark took to steering and Mike and Rizwan pushed off after untying us. Unfortunately Mike pushed off a little too enthusiastically and didn't leave himself any opportunity to get back onto the narrowboat, so we carried on the way we came, but without him, waving jokingly at the forsaken land-lover. Mark took the boat up the river a bit, and executed a three-point turn, or tried to. After some fighting with the boat we were again headed back towards the mooring point, but Mike was gone. Mark didn't seem remotely bothered, knowing that Mike was almost certainly walking towards Bevere Lock, but for a moment I and John at the front of the boat wondered where he'd gone.
It's okay. I think I see him, I said, gazing out across the water.
Where? John asked.
Sitting up on the hill just in front of the lock. Couple of hundred metres away. Yeah, I'm sure that's him. Get your camera with the 200mm zoom.
John got his camera, and extended the lens to full magnification.
Uh, that might be him.
Let me see, I said, and accepted the SLR camera from John.
Yeah, that's definitely him. And he looks pretty fed up. Wait. He's seen us. He's moving down the slope. Is that a jetty next to the lock?
It was. Mike waited patiently on the floated metal jetty while the narrowboat chugged along at three or four miles per hour, and Mark pulled the boat over to allow him to successfully jump aboard to go through the lock. And something of a novelty was this lock: automated, and the first lock we'd been through that was taking us up a gradient, instead of lowering us down. All controlled by a lock keeper in a cabin. The gates opened for us, the water level changed by automatic paddles, and the second gates opened for us. All we had to do was have someone driving our boat and make sure we didn't break any speed limits as we passed by the lock keeper (so John wasn't allowed on the throttle).
The rest of our course along the River Severn met with only automated locks, and we carried on along the river until evening, the rolling green surroundings forcing a calm mood upon me. Even Finbar didn't seem to become troubled by me taking a picture of him steering us through the rain. It was a very pleasant part of the cruise. For me, at least; John, Mike and Rizwan complained that they were bored with the peace, and so they sat about in the main area, Mike listening to hardcore, John reading Auto Trader, and Rizwan reading an old newspaper with an utterly absorbed look.
Towards the end of the river John was steering the boat. He brought us in to the place of our next stop: Stourport-on-Severn.
Stourport itself suffers from a personality disorder, says the Canal Companion.
Half convinced that it's a seaside town; half a rich heritage of canal wharves…
And it's got a point. There appears to be a fairground right next to the locks we passed through to get to into the basins where we hoped to moor. There was no one at this fairground, but we still saw coloured light bulbs and curious structures.
The locks in this area also become strange. Instead of the one paddle each side of the gates that we were used to, now we were finding locks with one paddle on both sides, and a central paddle too. This central paddle was something to be wary of for a boat of sixty-eight feet, for opening the central paddle causes an abrupt and unexpected surge of water through the gate itself. This meant rapid filling of the lock, and rapid flooding of any boat that was foolish enough to pull right up to the second gate. The problem for our boat was that it was the longest a boat could be. Once inside a closed lock our boat almost touched the first gate and the second gate. So when the central paddle was raised on such a lock, our boat was in for a wetting.
Once past the new-style locks, John stayed at the back of the boat making a pig's ear of steering through a basin again. Most of the crew were up on the roof of our narrowboat, wielding the long, sturdy wooden poles that come with the boat to push off of the bank when grounded on silt deposits. Now they were being used to push us out of the way of moored boats and protruding steel mooring bars.
Wouldn't it be funny if we hit that steel bar and knocked it under water so that it tore up other people's boats when they didn't see it? John laughed while steering.
What? Rizwan scowled.
To do that, we'd have to tear up our boat on the steel bar first. Rizwan frowned, got up on the roof and came to the front of the boat to talk to me and Finbar:
John is the most inconsiderate driver I know, he complained, relating John's comment.
I paid attention to Rizwan while at the same time looking out for potential photographs. The dark clouds were beginning to drop rain again now, so I put the Canon away. John, suddenly driving with skilled restraint, pulled us past all the full mooring areas, and down the Upper Basin to what seemed like a perfect mooring point. It was right next to a watering point, and bins for rubbish disposal, and it was right next to the road for us to head out in search of the town centre. So the crew began to pull us in and tie us to the steel mooring points. But it was all too good to be true.
Uh, children, we can't stop here, I said suddenly.
What? Mark objected.
We can't stop here overnight. Look. I nodded in the direction of a British Waterways sign. The symbols on the sign made it clear that you could only moor at this facilities point for a maximum of half and hour. I had a real problem with this, but apparently nobody else did.
It doesn't matter, Mark said.
We'll move when we get back from the town. Are you coming shopping with me and Finbar?
I said I'd go shopping. Then Rizwan decided he was coming, so I grabbed my camera and Mark and Finbar got their coats and wallets and we set off with Rizwan. When Mike started following us, Mark decided that we couldn't all go, and ordered Mike to get back on the boat. Mike turned away with the gait and posture of a disappointed child, but we were already half way up Mart Lane, heading up the sloped road onto York Street.
Not long after setting out along York Street, I realised that my original opinion of this town, as probably being a backward, tiny little village without any banks or well-known stores, was sorely off target. For a start, York Street is a one-way street. You don't get one-way streets in towns unless they have a traffic problem. Then, taking a right onto Bridge street I really was abashed. The town had most of the stores I could have asked for. But we didn't immediately see a large supermarket, so we kept going down the large street and eventually Mark noticed an elderly woman with a Co-Op Supermarket bag. Mark and Finbar were delighted, seeing as they both work in a Co-Op store when not on holiday.
Oh, yes, Mark seemed pleased with himself.
And I've got my staff discount card on me.
You've got it with you? Finbar asked, interested.
What, I interjected.
That means you get a ten percent discount, right?
Handy, I agreed.
Mark asked the woman where the store was and we carried on by her directions until we saw the supermarket. Soon we were inside, browsing like idiots without a shopping list, throwing in cheese and bags of crisps, a fifteen-pack of Banks's beer (which Mark and Finbar had, it seems, grown to like), and various other junk. Rizwan went over to the magazines to pick up the month's edition of FHM, our first of four men's magazines that week. All the while I was taking pictures inside the store, and suddenly even Mark was unhappy.
For God's sake, Bobby, put the camera away, he said, annoyed.
Jesus, I complained.
Bobby, put it away. Now! Finbar commanded, then turned away from the camera that I had no intention of pocketing just because we were in a supermarket. Rizwan had no problem with it. Starting the week slightly uncomfortable around the camera, he was now more than happy with me pointing the lens at him.
Get a picture of me racing down this aisle with the trolley, he suggested. I was pleased to see some enthusiasm, so I steadied the camera on a large stack of canned food, and took aim. Rizwan went sliding past, a huge manic grin on his face.
Mark and Finbar were in a different world, busily discussing with utmost seriousness what food to buy. How we ended up with only one meal (a few pizzas) and so much junk I don't know, but they seemed happy with their trolley's worth, and we went to the checkout.
Sadly the supermarket workers of Stourport know no such thing as a staff discount card. Try as they might to get Mark and Finbar their ten percent off, the till was having none of it.
Nope, I'm sorry, said the pleasant young woman on the checkout.
Where did you say you worked?
South of London, said Finbar.
Well we don't get discount cards up here.
Oh, never mind, said Mark. Then he and Finbar held a conversation about the Co-Op discounts in different stores with the girl on the checkout, and another female worker who'd come to see what was going on.
Riveted to the conversation as Rizwan and I were, we stood about waiting for the four of them to shut up and finish checking the shopping out. Soon, though, we were heading back to the boat, all loaded up with shopping. Somehow I ended up with four bags laden with heavy goods, while Rizwan got away with carrying just the fifteen-pack of Banks's beer. Mark and Finbar had a couple of bags each.
We stopped on the way to the Upper Basin so that Mark could draw out some money from a cash machine. After the brief stop we finished the journey to our boat, clambered in and dumped our shopping bags around the kitchen area. John and Mike decided they wanted to go into town to get some postcards. No problem, we said. Until we realised they were too incapable to make their own way into the town, and they wanted a guide. They got an unhappy Finbar for their guide, and soon the group of three was away.
Meanwhile, Ben warmed the oven and got ready to bung the pizzas into it. They had to be done two at a time, and those of us who only wanted Cheese Supreme pizzas had to wait while those who liked something a little spicier got their food cooked. Mike, John and Finbar returned, and of that trio only John wanted some of the spicy pizza. Mike and Finbar joined me and Rizwan in the other corner to wait for the plain pizzas. Soon we were each eating our halves of the two plain pizzas. Decidedly not filled by this snack we headed towards the cupboard to ravage the bags of crisps that Mark and Finbar had thoughtfully added to the shopping list in place of extra pizzas. Though we didn't much mind as we emptied one packet of Skips after another.
Eventually the eating finished, and Mark and Ben moved the narrowboat out of the temporary mooring point down to a place where we could stop for the night. Once again the front sleeping area became a social area, with people reading FHM over each other's shoulders or talking about miscellaneous things. Suddenly Mike charged into the front cabin, waving a supplement from The Mail on Sunday.
Oh, my God! Look at this headline! He had a look of mock disgust as he aimed the front of the Financial Mail at us. The headline read: MPs HAVE LET DOWN SMALL FIRMS. It was a double-entendre that only Mike could have spotted, and it had all of us in the front sleeping area laughing until our sides ached. Except Rizwan, who just said:
What? Why is that funny?
The crew was holding up well, even after three days of adventure. Admittedly Finbar seemed to be taking all the criticisms about his driving rather badly. And John was slowly becoming a social outcast as he repeated the same cry over and over again at the top of his voice:
Don't panic, Mr Manwaring! In fact it was Mark who started this, but John has a habit of taking things to a tedious frequency, and he's unfortunately not very good at realising when people are tired of the same joke.
Mike was suffering quite badly from hay-fever in all the green countryside, sometimes being unable to see at all as his eyes watered red and his running nose distracted his attention from anything else. But he too seemed to be enjoying the week, especially during the rare periods of rain when any hostile pollen particles were cleared out of the air and he could once again see and breathe. The rest of the time he needed a constant supply of tissues at hand.
Mark was seriously enjoying the week, if appearances were anything to go by. True, he wasn't happy with John frequently taking to Rizwan's bait of
John, someone's panicking! to which John would invariably reply:
DON'T PANIC!!! as loud as his vocal organs could manage. And he wasn't happy with my regular moaning and over-cautious nature. Not that I wasn't enjoying the week. Quite the opposite: I thought it had been great and was looking forward to the rest of it. It's just that I tend to caution people and warn them before they take on any task I deem risky, and admittedly this must sound like I'm just moaning. But it shouldn't have sounded like that. I was happy. Everyone seemed to be getting used to the camera; we hadn't gone a day so far when I'd wished more was going on, nor a day when I'd wished less was going on; there were peaceful moments and exciting moments; and we hadn't killed each other yet. All in all, it was turning out fine from my point of view.
The same seemed to be true for Ben and Rizwan. In fact, Rizwan's facial hair seemed to be experiencing some serious nurturing force, for he started the week clean-shaven, and already was sporting a solid moustache and beard, making him look even older than he did without.
After a while the evening slowed down and the others eventually drifted off to their individual sleeping areas, leaving myself and Ben on my bed to talk and joke loudly to Finbar's great displeasure. For a while, at least. Soon even we were in our own beds trying to sleep.