I don’t know about you, but I never think Funerals look right on a beautiful day. It should either be pouring with rain or blowing a gale, or both. Take mine for instance - Not a cloud in the sky, hardly a breath of wind, and to top it all, it’s unseasonably warm.
Everyone’s crowded around my little white coffin (which, by the way looks absurd) to witness the awkward ‘lowering in’ bit. I thought white was only used for babies and isn’t it supposed to signify purity or innocence? There’s nothing remotely pure or innocent about me. I know I’m still using the present tense, but after 15yrs it’s a hard habit to break.
Right, while the mourners pay their collective respects and the crusty old vicar does his best to remember what my mother told him to say, I’ll tell you a little more about what brought me here today.
My name is Timothy Newton. I’m 15 years old and two weeks ago I suffered the acute embarrassment and misfortune of being ordered to go on holiday with my parents. If this wasn’t bad enough, when they told me the holiday destination I almost died. I can say that now because it sounds ironic and funny, but I assure you, at the time it wasn’t. I remember standing in the lounge shouting - “I’d rather end my own life than spend two weeks on a narrow boat with you two!”
In the finish, I opted for the less lethal, scaled down version of running up to my room and slamming the door. After two hours of through the keyhole negotiations my Dad finally talked me down with the promise of a kindle, a day at Alton Towers and the Lord of the Rings Blue Ray box set. I would have settled for the kindle, but I sensed he’d give me more.
Anyway, my Mother insisted on showing me pictures of ‘our boat’ which had the ridiculous name of Anastasia of Salford. Part of me wonders if there’s a similar boat in Russia called ‘Betty of Leningrad’. My Dad even bought a skipper’s cap, complete with gold oak leaves and crossed anchors – I ask you! The brochure used words like ‘spacious’ and ‘homely’, which I imagined were code for cramped and medieval.
Anastasia or Ana for short belonged to their ‘vintage collection’. If my father’s vintage Bugatti was anything to go by, the narrow boat would probably be laid out on the bank in a hundred pieces and we’d have to build her before we set sail.
Having spent several miserable weeks in Abersoch in a two berth caravan, living much too close to my sweaty parents, I imagined the narrow boat offered competing levels of humiliation. This is only partly true. Caravans zip along at up to 55mph like two-wheeled blood clots looking for places to cause a stroke or heart attack. Narrow boats all move at the same funereal speed (3-5mph). So the likelihood of a ‘canal jam’ is fairly remote. I’ll come to locks later on.
As the name implies, they are fairly narrow. I found it quite easy to stand in the middle of my bedroom, (sorry ‘cabin’) and touch both walls. Once I got used to living in a waterborne corridor everything was almost fine. All of ‘Watery Dreams’ (not a name I’d have gone with) vintage collection were entirely wood based. Wooden beds, wooden, tables, chairs, mattresses, televisions, showers. Ok, I made up the last two, but you’d think in this age of super-lightweight materials like aluminium and carbon fibre, someone would want to build a cooler, trendier boat? When I asked my Dad why all barges were hollowed-out oak trees fitted with lawnmower engines, he raised his eyebrows, put on his captain’s hat and gave me a finger–wagging lecture on the many differences between barges and narrow boats.
How do you pack for such a holiday? For some guidance, I sneaked a peek at what my parents were taking. From the amount of Gore-Tex, and fleece being stuffed into their suitcases, I gathered we were embarking on some kind of Polar Voyage. The phrases “You never know” and “just in case” kept cropping up. When I asked if there was an I-Pod dock on board my Mother almost had a seizure. Then she explained this was a ‘gadget free’ holiday where we could indulge in some good old family fun. Mum had only ever used those words twice before. Once when a freak typhoon turned the Abersoch caravan site into a lake, and another time when we had a power cut on Christmas Day and had to find Grandma by candlelight.
My coffin’s been lowered in to the grave and now everyone’s queuing up to drop a handful of dirt onto my pristine white lid. I understand the significance of the whole ‘ashes to ashes’ thing - but it still feels like a bit of a cop out. When Nana Bostock died I refused to drop a filthy great clod on top of her. Instead, I left my own personal tribute. When everyone was making their way back to the shiny black limo’s I took out a small cling-filmed parcel from my pocket and carefully unwrapped it. Inside was one of her incredibly strong pickled onions. I remember sniffing it and thinking it was far better than any smelling salts. I can’t recall my last few words, but it was along the lines of ‘something for the journey Nan’. Then I flicked the dark brown jewel into the hole. It made a great noise as it bounced along the wooden lid, coming to rest by her brass name plate. I think she’d have had a good laugh about that. I’ve got loads of things they could throw into my hole. My fossilised trilobite that Grandpa Miller gave me on my ninth birthday. My signed Duncan Fernley cricket bat. Mind you, perhaps they want to look at them a little while longer, before they give them a good home?
Where was I? Oh yes, good old family fun. The only gadget they allowed me to take on the boat was my brand new e-kindle, which I crammed full of all the freebies I could download. Boggle and Scrabble were compulsory, as were my Dad’s ‘holiday binoculars’ and Instamatic camera. According to the Watery Dreams’ information booklet, this particular stretch of the Cauldon Canal was teeming with all sorts of aquatic rarities. I think if the booklet had said, ‘watch out for trainee mermaids’ my dad would have believed them.
So we arrived at the Marina, (which incidentally is only four miles from my house) on a beautiful day like today. You know, those days when everything’s still and the sky is so blue and bright it hurts your eyes to stare at it? Dave, our Watery Dreams rep, was busy inhaling clouds of diesel fumes as Anastasia of Salford put-putted into life.
While I wondered if Ana was equipped with gas masks, Dad did his best Captain Pugwash impression, complete with crappy salute.
“Permission to come aboard Sir?” Dave fanned a way through the acrid smoke and beckoned us onto the boat with a lazy wave of his hand. I expect he’d heard every nautical phrase in the book, from “Thar she blows!” to “Splice the main brace.” He gave us the full scripted tour, complete with bad boat jokes and a very lack lustre safety drill. Then he instructed us on the basic rules of canal travel and demonstrated the opening and closing of locks with a big aluminium handle called a windlass, similar to those used to start up vintage cars. I don’t think my Dad was listening to any of it. He just wanted to start crashing into things as quickly as possible.
I soon discovered that narrow boats are scaled down oil tankers. The driver, (sorry skipper) needs to think about turning way before a bend appears. Stopping is half close your eyes and pray and half throw it into full reverse and wait for the bang. Dave took us on a few laps of the marina to demonstrate the various steering and stopping manoeuvres. Dad insisted on holding onto the tiller the whole time like he was taking Dave on a date.
Eventually, an hour and a half later, we were underway. Captain Dad took position at the helm, while Mum and I unpacked our fleeces. My cabin smelled like an old mop, so I set about opening all the tiny round windows (sorry, portholes). Out of the three, two were rusted shut, so I wedged open the third with a training shoe and stuck my head out.
Once I’d gotten used to my Dad screaming “Locks ahoy!” or “Tunnel’ahead!” every few minutes, things started to settle down. Mum wasn’t impressed with him at all. She said ‘he was behaving in exactly the same childish manner as he did at home’. She also said ‘he’d swapped the T.V remote for the tiller handle and woe betide anyone who tried to take it from him’. After a heated discussion lasting all of three minutes where Mum threatened to insert the windlass somewhere below his waterline, he agreed to let her take control whenever she ‘had the urge.’ I, on the other hand, was only allowed to steer under the supervision of an adult.
I could tell this holiday was going to be a riot, so I vowed to jump ship as soon as another one came into view. Whereas Dad was Captain Ahab, Mum was ‘Queen of the Locks’. Every time we approached a new one, she’d get me to run ahead and start winding while she put her work shoes on. By the time she’d sashayed up to me in her spotless white trainers, most of the hard work was already done. If she was in a good mood she’d let me swing her round on the gate while she studied the route.
The secret to surviving on a canal boat is to try and slow everything down. I’m not saying you should sit in the lotus position and meditate the whole time, just try and relax into it. Once you realise that this isn’t a normal, ‘rush everywhere and see all the sights at breakneck speed’ holiday, you’re fine. I saw it as a kind of prolonged stupor, punctuated with bouts of intense exercise.
There was one day when I actually felt reasonably okay. I was sitting in amongst some spare tyres on the bow, watching the canal bank slip by. The reflection in the water was pin sharp and the trees and bushes were held in perfect symmetry. I asked Dad if I could borrow his camera, but he said the batteries were flat. Cheers Dad. When I was sure no one was watching I leant right over the front of the boat, hooking my feet through the tyres to stop myself from falling in.
I stared at my own reflection, lowering my face, so I almost kissed the murky water. I got a whiff of diesel and something rotten, like a vase of flowers that’s been left on a sunny window ledge too long. Then I dropped both my hands in, scooping up the water like a slow-motion paddle steamer. I enjoyed the tickling sensation as the liquid ran down my arms and off my elbows. Feeling slightly more daring, I plunged both arms in, up to my biceps and wondered how deep it went. Occasionally, a piece of vegetation would brush against my forearm, so I pulled it out, thinking it might be a hungry pike, or a diving duck.
With both arms fully submerged, I closed my eyes and let my mind wander. The only sounds I could hear were the faint purling’s of displaced water and the boat’s diesel engine beating out its own steady rhythm. Then it happened. Something grabbed one of my hands. I tried pulling it out, but whatever had latched on, pulled harder. I tried shouting, and realised that neither my mouth nor eyes would open. I heaved as hard as I could and the fingers – yes, they were actual fingers, loosened their grip a little. Then I used my other hand to try and prise them off, but another one grabbed it and I felt like I was holding onto an enormous weight…
They’ve all gone now - The mourners I mean. Pretty soon the gravediggers will return with their mini-JCB to seal me in for good. I suppose there are worse places to be buried. It’s better than one of those vast inner city cemeteries with tarmac paths and landscaped graves. At least here I’ve got an infant school on one side and a nice field with horses on the other. Anne, my sister, is only two rows down, so at least I’m near family.
The end of my story is a little fuzzy, but I’ll do my best. I remember feeling as though the hands dragging me down through the cold, dark soup of weeds and mud were vaguely familiar. They were about my size, but whenever I attempted to let go or find its head it pushed me away- not aggressively, like a mother lion would if one of her cubs was behaving a bit more rough than tumble.
Then, it all went black, and I found myself here, on this Indian Summers day, watching my own funeral. The weird thing is I know it’s me lying there in the coffin, but it doesn’t feel like it’s totally me. It’s hard to describe. If I try and remember things about my life and my family, there are gaps. Big chunks are missing. What’s even stranger is I have memories I’m not sure are even mine. It’s as though I’m looking down a long passage and every few feet there’s a door. If I open one, and go inside it’s like I’m walking round someone else’s thoughts. The more doors I enter, the more the memories start stacking up. Some are so real I can almost taste them. Others are so faint I can hardly remember anything - like a string of tiny sighs.
Anyway, I’d better go before I really get confused. It’s not exactly how I thought being a spirit or a ghost (or whatever I am) would feel. I mean, why am I still so wet? And why do I feel drawn to the canal? You’d think that was the last place I’d want to go, wouldn’t you?