Saturday, 23 April 2016

A boaters life for me! (another short story)

A Boaters Life for me!

Jill had known Bob for nearly three years, not in an intimate way, but as a friend, he was one of life’s nice guys and both of them would do anything to help each other out. Jill liked Bob quite a lot and always looked forward to meeting him. Both of them got on well because they had a common passion, they each owned narrow boats, and although not intentionally, they seemed to bump into each other every couple of weeks whilst they each explored the many inland waterways around the country. On every occasion this happened, they would enjoy a night together playing cards, having a glass of wine and just chatting. Both were lone boaters and both liked the boating lifestyle and the independence it gave them to do as they please. It allowed them to move their home every few days if they desired and to watch at close hand the changing landscapes, whether it was open countryside or along the industrial back waters in towns and cities. They also enjoyed watching the seasons change and to see the different wildlife habitations close up.

Jill had developed her passion for the inland waterways whilst her husband was still alive. They both used to walk the tow paths together as a form of exercise and a way to de-stress from their hectic jobs. After his sudden passing she had continued to do this on her own and whenever possible always sat on the lock bench seat, their favourite place. This was an ideal spot to watch the various boaters pass through the lock. She found it enthralling, the mechanics of the lock and the skill the boaters had in manoeuvring such large boats into such narrow chambers. All of the boaters always seemed so happy and really friendly, most waived and many struck up conversations with her. It was one glorious sunny afternoon whilst she was sitting on the bench that she met a boater called Dorothy, a woman who was taking her boat through the lock and who suddenly suggested that Jill join her on the boat to help her and then they could enjoy a cuppa!. Within a matter of minutes Jill was hooked, she wanted to own such a boat. They chatted for hours together over copious cups of tea, and it was soon after this that Jill had emptied her house of belongings, rented it out on a long-term let, handed her notice at work and had purchased a 50ft narrow boat called ‘Nightingales Call’. Everything was so fast but she knew from her heart that this was going to be the next chapter in her life. Even though everyone thought she was losing her mind, she had learned firsthand that life was for living and not for wasting.

Ten years on, she was now a very proficient boater with not a single regret. In fact she was very contented and enjoyed every moment of her time, even during the winter months which can be very arduous at times, with water on the boat freezing and a need to keep the log burner alight throughout the day and night. She was now a fully fledged boater and this was proven by the fact that whenever she had to leave the boat, within hours she was longing to return. Fortunately this did not happen a great deal usually only when a new tenant was taking over the renting of her house and she had to meet up with them and sign contracts. She had definitely made the right decision, in fact she couldn’t remember a time where she had felt so contented with life.

Jill still kept in touch with friends and family by mobile and she had even kept herself up to date with the new technology around and was proud owner of a ’tablet’ which she used a great deal to chat to fellow boaters in various chat forums that were available. Last week she had taken a call from her sister and it had become clear that she needed to travel to see her as her sister’s daughter was moving to Australia and they were having a family farewell party for her. Jill’s sister had managed to persuade her to stay with her for a couple of days. As the call ended Jill knew she had made a mistake by agreeing to this and was already regretting her decision, even though she loved her sister and adored her lovely niece. She could cope with one day, but two days away from her beloved boat, she thought was just too long. She told Bob about it the following evening whilst playing cards. Bob knew Jill well enough to tell she was very apprehensive about it and knew two days would be difficult for her, but he also realised that she would regret it if she didn’t say her goodbyes to her niece. Over the evening he managed to put her mind at ease, emphasising how good it would be for her to catch up with family and friends. He agreed, as usual, to keep an eye on her boat for the duration of her trip. They finished their last hand of cards along with a large whiskey and Jill handed over her spare keys to the boat and thanked him so much for being there for her. She wanted to give him a big hug, but thought that this was a little inappropriate and anyway she had done the same for Bob a month or so ago, in fact it was common practice amongst fellow boaters to look after one another and their boats. She would bring him back a gift, a nice bottle of whiskey as a thank you.

As Jill’s trip got nearer they both agreed to moor up together in a quiet spot they knew, just outside of the town which allowed Jill easy access to the train to take her to her sisters. Jill had found a lovely mooring spot for Nightingale Call’ which was shaded by overhanging trees which Jill thought was ideal for keeping the sun off the boat during the day which would help keep the boat cool inside. She could see Bob and his boat a little way down the tow path and within no time she was soon waiving him goodbye as she made her way towards the train station. She looked back and she could see her boat and already she longed to be back on board, but she knew she had to make this visit.

The whole family greeted Jill with hugs and kisses. They all commented on her long powder grey hair and her colourful clothing. It had been years since she had been to a hairdressers and so her hair had become long and a little wild – but always clean and brushed, she liked it this way and often reflected on the wasted hours and cost of keeping up with fashions just to comply and to meet everyone else’s expectations. She was now free of all that and had even adopted her own way of dressing which was comfortable and ideal for someone living on a boat with limited storage space and the inability to use an iron due to the boat running off batteries as opposed to ‘main electric’. Her ‘look’ was sort of Hippy but with an African bias with bright swathes of colour and of course numerous coloured threads braided into her hair. Her niece commented that she looked really ‘cool’ and told her mother she should do similar. This made Jill laugh as her sister was definitely a full on member of society, perfectly dressed with not a hair out of place, she was also a school governor and had recently volunteered to become a magistrate, hardly the hippy type!

As the afternoon approached and discussion topics moved onto, as they always do with families, about reminiscing of past times, Jill suddenly felt a need to get back to her boat, her comfort blanket. She didn’t know why, maybe it was the memories of a past life she no longer wanted to be reminded of. Maybe it was the fondness everyone was sharing with her about her late husband, she didn’t know, but she knew she wasn’t staying she was leaving. She took her niece out into the garden and explained how she was feeling and how she didn’t want her to be offended. Her niece told her not to be ridiculous, she fully understood why she wanted to leave and gave Jill a big hug and promised that on her return she would make the effort to join up with her on the boat for a few days. Jill slipped away from the party of family and friends and was soon on the last train on her way back home. She would apologise to everyone over the phone next week once she had settled back into her comfortable lifestyle.

It was nearly midnight, there was a breeze in the air and Jill found herself urging her night vision to kick in as she walked along the tow path trying to find ‘Nightingales Call’. She had just managed to get the last train home and she was finding it difficult to see. She felt stupid that she hadn’t taken her torch with her, definitely not something a ‘real’ boater would have forgotten she thought. She was feeling quite low and emotional since meeting her family, but she knew she would be back to her old self once she got on her boat and after a good night’s sleep. Suddenly quite abruptly she came face to face with a man, dressed in a dark overcoat and wearing gloves and a scarf, which she thought was weird considering that although there was a breeze, it was a summer night and still quite warm. He didn’t say a word and was certainly not a gentleman as Jill was forced to move to the side to let him buy. She could smell his alcoholic breath and his coat wreaked of stale cigarettes. She shivered and decided to get a move on. Soon she was at the boat. She realised as soon as she tried to switch the lights on in the cabin that the batteries must have run flat. On occasions like this she would usually start the engine up to charge the batteries, which would give her instant lighting, but on this occasion she didn’t want to wake Bob in his boat moored a little further down the cut. It was too late for engine noise she thought. Fortunately on a boat everything has its place, so she soon located her torch and decided to go straight bed, it had been a long and tiring day and she had no intention of participating in her usual activity, no, there would be no reading tonight, not even by torch light! She knew she would fall asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.

Just as her eyes started to close she heard the noise. First it was just a tapping, she thought it might be a bird walking along the roof of the boat, but now it was more intense. She could hear a sweeping sound and then a real rattle. She immediately got out of bed, she realised that it must be someone outside, maybe trying to pinch something off the roof, or possibly someone untying the ropes, which some people found it amusing to do. She opened the bedroom curtains and shined her torch through the window onto the tow path; there was nothing she went into the living area of the boat and did the same from the windows in there, but she couldn’t see anything in the darkness outside of her boat. She heard the sound again, if anything it was more intense in this part of the boat. She could hear her heart beating, she wasn’t the type of person to feel frightened, but she knew she was starting to feel this way. She told herself to pull it together and not to be so foolish, often on boats there are sounds, gulps from the water passing by and always birds and animal sounds from outside. She turned off her torch and bravely and quietly moved back to her bedroom and closed the door and wrapped herself under the duvet; she would make herself go to sleep!

The boat rocked suddenly. Jill sat up in bed and moved to the corner of the bed and pulled the duvet around her, someone or something was definitely on her boat, she wasn’t dreaming this, it wasn’t in her imagination, something was wrong. She then heard the door rattle. This confirmed her worse nightmare someone was on her boat and was attempting to get in. She was really scared, but knew that she had locked it and had even put the key on the hook as she always did, she hadn’t left it open, she was sure, but this gave her little comfort. Surely no one would be able to get through the steel doors of the boat? She decided to remain totally silent in the hope the intruder would move on, this was her strategy, especially as she had left her phone in the saloon and could call no one, and no way was she going to move from her bed, for some unknown reason she felt safe!

A couple minutes went by which seemed hours for Jill, when suddenly she heard the boat doors creek open. Someone was definitely on board! She had an uninvited stranger on her boat. She was now in serious danger and she knew it. Her heart was beating so fast she thought it would explode from her rib cage. She felt along the side of the bed where she always kept a lump hammer – she had been told years ago by an old seasoned boater to always have something under or beside your bed – just I case! She managed to locate this in the darkness, just as her bedroom door started to open. She could see the torch light shining through the gap. She screamed out that she had a weapon and one step further she would be forced to use it. To her surprise Bob, her dear friend, replied. Jill jumped from the bed and ran to the doorway, fell into Bob’s arms and cried uncontrollably, all of her emotions just poured out and Bob just held her tightly and said nothing. It was the perfect thing to do at this moment in time.

After a short while had passed Bob insisted on starting boats engine he was the only neighbour nearby and he certainly wasn’t going to complain about the noise. As soon as all the lights of the boat flickered on, Bob got the kettle on and sat opposite Jill at the table. It was then that he told her that he had been letting his dog out just before he went to bed when he saw lights coming from ‘Nightingales Call’ windows; he had been convinced that it was an intruder as it had been torch light coming from the windows. He had therefore decided to investigate. When he arrived everything was quiet, so he had decided to check if there had been a break in.

Jill couldn’t believe how she had reacted and thanked him, but still expressed that she had heard a number of sounds outside, which was why she had shined her torch through the windows in the first place. She insisted that someone had been outside, and confirmed to Bob that she had seen someone on the towpath earlier, late at night. Bob laughed out loud; the stranger had been old timer Frank from a boat further down the towpath. Bob and Frank were old friends and he had joined Bob for a few drinks earlier, and as for the noise, the tapping on the roof was just the overhanging branches being blown by the breeze in air! Bob reminded Jill that she had purposely moored at this spot because of this and the protection of the sun it gave to her boat! Jill felt stupid; she looked down at the table cloth in embarrassment. Bob picked up her hand and held it. He looked deep into her eyes and said “Your safe Jill, I’ll always be here for you, I’m not leaving you again”. It was at this moment Jill realised that Bob was indeed a special friend, someone who cared for her, someone who was there for her. Someone she wanted to be with forever also. She picked up her coffee cup, one hand still in Bob’s and just felt the stress of the whole day disappear, and she could feel the old Jill returning and knew life would never be the same again. She also knew she wasn’t going off her boat ever again!

David Biddle

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