Woke up. Everyone was packing, taking stuff out of wardrobes and drawerss and replacing them into travel bags. The packing process was not a difficult one for me. I hadn't at any point unpacked, so now I simply had to open the draw under my bed into which dirty clothes had gone, and cram them into a couple of carrier bags. Stick the carrier bags into my only luggage bag and I was done.
I moved into the main area, found Rizwan and Mike tidying up, making sure they'd found everything that belonged to them. John was doing likewise in his room at the back. Ben steered us toward our final cruise destination: Tardebigge. Where it had all begun, and where our loop around the Stourport Ring would end.
Once Finbar had finished packing and tidying, he decided to finish the washing up that had grown in a pile by the sink. I was somehow persuaded to help him, quickly handed a dirty rag and ordered to do the drying. Not used to doing any domestic work, I marvelled at how people could use the same reeking cloth to finish off a task supposed to clean the crockery and cutlery. The rag was greasy and stained. I really wasn't happy about the fact I'd been eating off of plates cleaned in this manner all week, but within the hour we'd be off the boat for a long time (perhaps never to set foot on it again), so I didn't object strongly. While we tackled the dishes, Mike helped Mark dispose of perishable food… into Shortwood Tunnel. From where I was standing, I got a fine view of lettuce and milk and spaghetti being thrown excitedly out of a window. Ben tried to warn us of an oncoming boat, but Mike was lost in his zealous disposal of wasted food and almost hit the front of a passing narrowboat with a rotting tomato. The drivers didn't seem to notice, and passed without comment.
After what seemed like only half an hour after my waking, we reached Tardebigge and moored against other boats in the hire base. This prompted Finbar to wash at a faster rate, hoping to be finished before Mark got back from the hire base reception centre where he was informing them of our arrival (and our list of damages). Mark returned, said we had a while before we had to be off the boat. The dishes got finished, and soon we were all making final checks to make sure we'd left nothing behind. Happy that we'd missed nothing, we sat about relaxing on the boat.
Why are we sitting here? I asked, unable to see any reason to keep us on the boat.
Why not? Mark responded.
Yeah, we've got another fifteen minutes before we have to be off, said Rizwan.
In fact we were waiting for Ben to call a cab, and soon a minibus had come to pick up seven passengers heavily laden with luggage, ready to take us to Birmingham. We loaded into the vehicle and the driver confirmed that we were going to Digbeth Coach Station. John, who was in the front, agreed and Mark was suddenly compelled to yell out
Stigbeth! from his seat in the back. The driver, perhaps assuming that Mark simply didn't know the correct name of the station, suddenly uttered the name
Digbeth in such a sing-song tone that it forced us all to giggle. Mark, especially, enjoyed the reaction enough that he again shouted
Stigbeth at no one in particular. The driver sung
Digbeth again and now Mark was in hysterics, rolling about within the constraints of his seatbelt. The rest of us found the combination of the driver's innocent corrections and Mark's wild chuckling too much, and we all had to try to stifle laughter. We weren't very successful.
Mark's trick worked perhaps a couple more times before the driver realised he was being toyed with, and then he kept his silence. Until he tried to force John into a conversation about the Rover car factory in Birmingham.
At Digbeth Coach Station we got out of the minibus and stashed most of our luggage into lockers before heading out into Birmingham for the second time that week. Sadly, we began by walking straight into Birmingham's Rag Market. And even more sadly, Mark, Ben and Finbar definitely were not leaving without having a good look around. A very good, very thorough, stall-by-stall look around the entire market. John couldn't see the point of being at the rag market, but otherwise seemed fairly indifferent. Rizwan and Mike, though, seemed to be about as annoyed as I was.
We were there so long that I was beginning to get pissed off. I wanted to go into the main part of the town to get some money out, wanted to go for a drink and maybe some food. After about an hour at the rag market, Ben decided he'd go to find a cash point if I was going too. I agreed gladly, but then Finbar made clear his desire to visit a bank. Then Rizwan too. For some reason that I never did grasp this caused Ben to abort the whole idea, pissing me off even more. Then we trudged around the rest of the rag market for what felt like another forty minutes.
Finally we left the market and started heading up the main street at last. But as we passed a cinema, a young woman asked Mark and Finbar if they could spare five minutes for a survey. They began to wave her away until she mentioned the phrase 'free Doritos' and suddenly they were heading into the cinema with this woman. Now I was seriously pissed off. They'd not bothered to ask whether we minded going in, and apart from a brief glance back to make sure their group was still following them, they didn't seem to think about us at all. So I snapped and started ranting on about what a wanker Mark was, how happy I was that he was so qualified to decide what the group wanted to do, and how pleased I was that it was 'Do What Mark Wants Day'. My venom silenced Mark, but Finbar just kept pursing his lips in mocking parody of a nagging woman and going
Ooooh. This did not help bring me down to a sensible level, and while the others obediently took up places with Doritos survey staff, I sat on a chair watching them taste crisps, a fiery glare burning my visage.
When a Doritos woman told me to sit down and do the survey, I just replied:
Sorry, no. I'm allergic to everything except water. She glanced at her colleague with a look that said: 'This one's a happy guts', turned back to me and said politely:
After leaving the cinema, Finbar seemed to have no problem with me. Ben was treating me with the same disdain he'd been giving me all day. Only Mark now treated me with caution, speaking carefully to me lest I should go berserk again, for I still had that maddened look fixed to my face. I again admired Finbar's ability to reach a calm state straight after a tantrum, but found myself unable to do the same.
We wandered about for a while, Mark and Ben talking of going for a Chinese meal in a restaurant they'd seen. Suddenly the group stopped as Mark said:
I want to go and get a Chinese. His tone lacked its usual command, this time sounding like a point of fact, a request almost.
I want to go to the Wetherspoon's pub, Finbar complained.
Yeah, and there's no fucking way I'm sitting in a Chinese restaurant, I barked, too proud to come down from my angered state.
I'm going back to the Wetherspoon's we were at on Thursday to get another of those burgers. Anyone else going that way? I turned to Mike and John, but it was Finbar who said:
I think I am. Oh, I don't know.
Mark pleaded reason with his friend:
Finbar, if you go to the pub, it'll just be the same place you've already been to, and you'll end up having the same meal you had two nights ago. Come to the Chinese with me and Ben.
Ohhhh, alright then. Finbar sounded reluctant, but I knew it didn't really bother him what he did.
Well I'm going to that pub. Who's coming with me? I asked, still talking like some jumped-up prick who didn't give a fuck who went with him. Which wasn't actually the case.
Yeah, I want to go to the pub, John said immediately.
Yeah, said Mike.
After a few seconds of blank staring, Rizwan also joined with:
Yeah, alright. He didn't quite seem with it.
And then we did what we should have done hours before. We split the group. Mark, Ben and Finbar headed off the way we came to find their restaurant, while the rest of us headed along familiar paths and through well-remembered shopping areas to get back to the Wetherspoon's pub: The Figure Of Eight.
The four of us entered the pub, and Rizwan and I took a right and sat at a table-for-two on a level up a few steps.
Wow, how fucking romantic, I joked.
Where the fuck did the other two go? I was still talking on high-power mode to convey toughness. I needn't have bothered. Rizwan didn't pay any attention, and I had no reason to be stressed.
Oh, who cares, Rizwan said, expression telling me that he really didn't care.
Yeah, I agreed.
Mike's really pissing me off today.
This admission surprised me. Normally Mike and Rizwan seemed to be good friends.
Why? I asked, shaken out of my 'hard man of action' performance.
Rizwan looked thoughtful, seemed unable to decide.
I don't know.
Thinking back, I realised that the two of them had been arguing over a lighter or some small object on the way to this pub. Then I recalled that Mike had seemed pissed off with Rizwan's behaviour.
Rizwan changed the subject and we talked about other things for a couple of minutes before Rizwan offered to order drinks and food. This also surprised me, because all the week until now, Rizwan had expected others to do things for him. Now he offered to order for both of us, and showed no sign of preparing to ask for something in return.
He returned with drinks, and I was taking a picture of him drinking in front of the pub background when Mike and John suddenly bounded up the few steps to the area where we were sitting. They took up the table beside us.
Hello, I said, concentrating on the camera.
Where've you two been? Thought you'd decided you didn't like my company.
What? No, we wondered where you two had gone, Mike said, indignation creeping into his tone.
You just disappeared after we came in.
Didn't you see us walk over here? Rizwan asked.
No, Mike replied bluntly.
Haven't you even ordered drinks yet? I asked, noting their lack of beverages.
We were looking for you, John said defensively.
Okay, I said, finishing with the camera.
What are you having, Mike? John asked before going to the bar.
When John returned we all chatted, enjoyed our meals once they arrived, watched Mike and Rizwan do tricks with the butane lighters John had bought ten or twenty of, and got another round of drinks in.
At one point Rizwan suddenly grew a smile on his face, and said:
This week was good. We have to do this next year.
Do it again? I asked, arching an eyebrow.
Yeah, he said bright-eyed. I'd never heard Rizwan speak like this before.
It'd be great. We'll all have been to university for a year, and we'll be really different people. It'll be interesting.
Yeah, I might be gay by then, Mike joked flatly.
Rizwan did not laugh. In fact, he didn't see a funny side at all, and his awe-filled gaze turned to a frown.
Okay, maybe we won't do it again.
We finished our drinks, talking some more, then decided to head back to the coach station.
We stopped once in an outlet of HMV where I bought a computer game, then stopped in the run-down shopping centre to go to the toilet before leaving for the coach station. After making sure none of us wanted to do anything else in Birmingham we began the search for Digbeth. This turned out to be more difficult than we'd assumed and we realised we'd been a lot further from the station than we'd thought. For a moment I thought we might get back to the coach station too late, which would be a real problem seeing as Mark had the key to the locker my luggage was in, and Ben had the only coach pass. And I knew the other three would not wait. Just as I began to think of what to do in such an event we were suddenly there, Mark, Ben and Finbar already pacing about looking at charts and talking to Information to find out which terminal we wanted.
I was in a good mood, and Mark was talking to me again, although I still sensed a little caution in the way he spoke near me. Or perhaps I was paranoid.
We weren't left waiting long, the coach arriving before anyone could get bored. We boarded quickly this time, stowing our stuff underneath in cabins at the side of the coach, then getting on and heading for seats at the back. This trip we had seats in a big group, all of us sitting together. Rizwan sat next to me and read the booklet that came with the game I'd just bought, Mike and Ben sat behind us listening to Mike's Discman, Finbar and Mark sat in front of us, and John sat to the left of me.
The journey didn't seem to take long. Some of the group slept during the ride (and Mark was not happy when I woke him reaching out to get a picture of Finbar asleep – the only time Finbar couldn't complain). Those with personal music systems spent the two hours or so listening to whatever tapes and CDs they'd got with them. I did nothing, drifting through the hours in the same sort of voluntary trance that kept me sane in the sleepless hours of the previous Saturday's morning.
When we reached Victoria it all disintegrated pretty quickly. Ben said goodbye to us at the coach station, heading off down a side exit to meet his waiting father. Mike and Rizwan split from the little group I was in at the train station, heading off to get a train that the rest of us didn't favour. We waved goodbye to Mike and Rizwan, and the remaining four of us talked and (in my and John's case) took photos of the station.
Sorry for earlier, I said to Mark.
What for? Mark said. Apparently he didn't want or expect an apology for my verbal assault in Birmingham.
My poor humour earlier.
What poor humour? He really didn't see what I was getting at.
Me calling you a 'freak in a red jumper' and yelling at you. Do you forgive me?
Oh, sudden realisation caught him.
No, I don't, and he scowled for a few seconds. I saw he wasn't joking, so I turned to talk to Finbar, who was buying a ticket from the automated machine we stood by, then noticed John poking around in one of my bags.
We waited in the centre of the station, watching the schedule boards as I tried to finish the roll of film I had in the Yashica T5 before the trip ended completely. Eventually we got a train that went to Sutton from platform ten, the four of us sat at the end of the train, just before a driver cabin.
Mark and John marked their territory by emitting a barrage of bizarre noises and yells shortly after sitting down, making sure all the people that boarded after us knew what they'd have to expect for the rest of the journey. I and Finbar just grimaced in embarrassment.
That was great, wasn't it? Mark asked, glowing smile. We all agreed sincerely.
If we did it again next year, who'd come?
Yeah, said Finbar. John also agreed.
You'd come, wouldn't you? Mark asked, directing a gaze at me.
Yeah, I said, turning to look at him. Apparently Mark didn't hate me. Thinking about it, though, I decided that I wouldn't go again. Not because it wouldn't be good. The past eight days had been great. Every minute of it in retrospect, and almost every minute of it when it had been happening. We'd just about managed not to kill each other. We hadn't sunk the boat. Cruising along peaceful canal-ways hadn't bored me (although Mike and John complained more than once). I hadn't starved in the absence of the junk food that normally sustains me. I'd got plenty of photos and enjoyed the places we'd been too. In fact, the week had been great. I was even glad that Rizwan had been with us, happy to admit that my initial dread at the thought of spending time around him was a poor judgement.
But Rizwan had made a good point: we'll be really different people after a year apart. Some of us won't have seen each other for most of that year. We might be even less compatible a group then than we had been this time. Perhaps even lose contact altogether.
And as for trying to relive the same holiday, but perhaps on different canals, I knew that that wouldn't work. The things that frustrated or irritated us this time would tire us very quickly a second time, and the surprises on the trip that had delighted us this time would have little effect a second time round.
I couldn't see the next canal holiday even going into the planning stage, but I nodded and smiled enthusiastically as I answered Mark on the train. No point in abandoning the idea altogether. If we talked of such plans a year from now, the idea might seem irresistibly appealing.
How are you all getting home? John asked.
Oh, Finbar said, knocked out of his sleepy line of thought. He hadn't thought of that until now.
I'll probably get a bus.
Me too, Mark said.
My Dad can give you all a lift home in his car if you want. He'll be waiting at the station when we get there.
Yeah, if it's okay, Mark said.
Thanks, said Finbar.
Now they turned to me.
What about you, Bobby?
Oh, I said with a grin. I had been keeping my address a secret from them, and being dropped off at my front door would give the game away.
I'll walk from the station.
Are you sure? John asked, perplexed.
Yeah, he couldn't have us finding out exactly where he lives, Finbar added wryly.
Ah, John smiled too, now, seeing my reasons.
Fine, be like that.
The train reached Sutton station. We alighted the train and I struggled to get as many pictures as possible, not made easy by the kilograms of bulky baggage I was carrying on both sides of my body. The four of us headed up the long flight of steps that led off of the platforms, and headed into the ticket foyer then out into the overcast evening. John's father greeted us as we stepped out of the train station.
They said goodbye to me, I returned the farewell, and then they walked over to a line of parked cars. I took one last picture of them walking away, and then turned to walk down Sutton High Street to head for home.