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I can’t believe it! I am going overseas for the first time. I have been on a ferry before but that was to the Isle of Wight, which is really not the same as going abroad. The Sap and The Chief sat inside me a few weeks back and talked about things they wanted to get done to me before we go. It turns out we’re going to a place called Holland to see The Chief’s cousin who has lived there for years.
They intend to catch a ferry from Dover to France, then drive through Belgium, apparently all on the wrong side of the road...now I am worried.
The Sap has been busy improving my kitchen all week and now I boast a microwave oven and some fold-down work surfaces. Today he’s changed my oil and filters and given me a good once-over to make sure I won’t let them down. I can’t wait to get going.
The ferry leaves Dover at 10.30am but we must be there well before this and we set off at the crack of dawn for the long journey, all up the A3 and on to the M25. Everything goes without incident but after an hour heading down the M20 something doesn’t feel right to me and The Sap swears when he notices that the red warning lamp has come on telling him my batteries are not being charged.
“Looks like we have a broken alternator drive belt,” he curses, “but we have a spare. It’s simple to change, but a damned nuisance as I haven’t got time to fix it before the ferry leaves.”
I know he’s wrong about the belt because the water is still being circulated around my engine.
After he pauses at the roadside to take a look under my bonnet, he soon climbs back in with a woeful expression, “Perhaps a wire has come off or it’s the alternator itself. We only have an hour before the ferry leaves, so let’s get there and decide what to do.” When we pull into the waiting queue The Sap remarks that there are a lot of Belgian vehicles towing trailers with classic cars on them and he wanders off to speak to some of them.
He’s back just as the attendant starts waving frantically to call us on to the ferry. “We’re not really going like this...surely we must get Sammy fixed,” says The Chief.
“Don’t worry, I spoke to a Belgian and he knows a garage with lots of Mercedes trucks that have the same alternator. We’ll meet up on board the ferry and get the details.”
“Are you sure Sammy will make it there?” asks The Chief, obviously worried about being stranded across The Channel.
“I don’t intend to go all the way to this garage today because it will be getting dark and I don’t really want to put the lights on for long or we will be in trouble. I am going to follow the Belgian pair on sidelights and they’ll take us to somewhere we can stop safely for the night just inside Belgium and then we’ll carry on by ourselves in the morning using a map they’ll draw for us...don’t forget we have the leisure battery too, so we’ll be okay.”
I think The Sap is right; once I’m underway, my diesel engine doesn’t take any power out of the battery so if he goes easy on the brake lights and is careful...there should be enough power in the battery to start my engine in the morning. Yes, I think everything should be okay.
After almost an hour tailing our heroes out of the port and into Belgium, The Sap is getting anxious driving on sidelights in worsening light on a busy, strange road, but soon the car ahead indicates to leave the motorway and The Sap breathes a sigh of relief, “Just in time, I wouldn’t have wanted to stay on this road much longer.”
But our way isn’t straight anymore and too often we are losing the ability to see where we are going by the light of the Belgian’s headlamps so The Sap has to turn on my headlamps quite often. I am praying we haven’t far to go and after ten minutes we follow our Belgian guide into the car park of a big store that apparently specialises in cheap cigarettes, booze and tobacco. Our friend climbs out of his car and speaks to The Sap in words I have never heard before, which I later discover to be French, “You can park just over there...you will be quite safe here, there are already quite a few British trucks and vans waiting for tomorrow’s opening and the ferry home. Now you have the map I drew for you...I’m sure you won’t have a problem getting your alternator fixed. Bon Chance!”
We feel abandoned and anxious as his lights disappear away towards the motorway, but my owners soon rustle up some food before they turn in for the night. It is not the quietest spot, because lorries are arriving all through the night to stop over before stocking up, en route to the Channel ferries.
At eight o’clock in the morning we are ready to go and The Sap turns the key anxiously, but my engine bursts into life and, with the red warning light still glowing, we set off down minor roads to find the garage to which the Belgian has directed us. An hour or so later, we draw up outside the garage that is just opening and after The Sap has spoken with the owner, one of the Belgian mechanics is underneath me whipping out the carbon brush pack from my alternator. He shows it to The Sap who says he feels quite ashamed for never checking such a vulnerable part that can have major consequences. After fitting a new pack, my red light goes out once the engine is started and with everything solved quite cheaply, we head back to the motorway that The Sap accepts is the only sensible route for the long, delayed drive to Holland.
This outing is unusual for me, mainly because I don’t go on motorways very often but also because this driving-on-the wrong-side thing feels strange especially when on the odd occasion I find myself moving to the left to overtake some seriously slow lorry battling its ponderous load up the slightest of hills. For mile after mile or I suppose I should say ‘kilometre after kilometre’ I am racing along at 60 miles per hour...again being a good continental visitor, that’s almost 100 km/h. In fact at one stage, admittedly on a slight downhill stretch, I even topped the ton or should that be the tonne? These continental terms don’t resonate in quite the same way, do they? I am still trying to picture a Belgian ‘Ton(ne)-up-Boy’ flat out on his motorcycle’s petrol tank at only 62.5 miles an hour!
After a journey through mostly flat countryside with more heavy lorries than I have seen in my lifetime, we skirt Antwerp, which The Sap says we’ll explore on our return and head for a small town in Holland called Venlo where there is a campsite especially for campervans. This should be a novelty; I have only been on two campsites since they’ve had me. The Sap says that the Dutch are very strict about wild camping, so we will stop behind a restaurant with campervan parking that our Belgian friend recommended.
It’s just getting dark when we pull in and the proprietor is quickly out to welcome his English guests to an otherwise deserted site. He tells them that he waives the camping fee if they dine in his restaurant and has even had the foresight, or maybe business acumen, to greet us equipped with a menu. A quick leaf through seems to encourage them, so I am parked in a corner, hooked up to the electricity and settle down while they ready themselves for dinner. I heave a sigh of relief when they go...it’s been a long eventful day and weary old Sammy just wants to rest before tomorrow’s onslaught.
The next day turns out to be another trial for me because although Holland is flat, so am I...flat-out all the way, as we make for the small town of Medemblik in the north of the country. It is next to the huge dyke-controlled Eselmeer which The Sap says used to be called the Zuyder Zee when he went to school, just before man landed on the moon. We pass the battlegrounds of Arnhem and the bridges of Nijmegen both renown for events during the last war and immortalised in hit films. The Sap says that he wants to reach Amsterdam and visit a coffee shop...there must be loads of places to stop for coffee, so just why he must reach Amsterdam I really don’t know.
Nearing dusk we thread our way into the city and I find myself parked up next to a canal with loads of bicycles whizzing past me. They’ve gone for their much needed refreshment in some local coffee shop, but are back before too long. Then it’s off to another special campervan park where, in the strangely pungent foreign city air, I and my owners drift off and dream.
It was not long before ‘Old Bill’ was on my tail again. I did wonder if they were joining in my sport – but this was a different Police Authority in a different county, so it was unlikely. Again, I wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, but this time I was driving a more modern car, but it was quite soon after the change of law, so I had just forgotten.
I had been driving happily along a dual carriageway and slowing down for a queue of traffic in both lanes, approaching traffic lights, when I spotted a police car that surreptitiously moved into that blind spot of my door mirror. Unfortunately just because you can’t see them, does not mean they can’t see enough of you. I came to a halt and put my seatbelt on.
They slowly overtook me and stopped in their shorter queue. When the lights changed, I pulled gently away in the forlorn hope they would bugger off. While I enjoyed the occasional tussle with the boys in blue, it was getting to be too often and, being a pragmatic bloke, I recognised that the more often you engage in dangerous sport, the more likely you are to get hurt.
I decided to turn left up a side road that looped around to where I was heading but I cursed when they slowed down, switched lanes and followed me. I stopped in the road outside a pub and climbed out just as they drew up. Ignoring them, I headed for the pub.
“Where might you be going, Sir?” asked a portly officer.
“In the pub,” I answered honestly, as we entered into that stupid question and curt answer phase.
“Have you been drinking, Sir?”
“I said I’m going into the pub – not leaving it.”
“Do you know why we followed you, Sir?”
“Because you’re lost?”
“Don’t play games with us, Sir – this is serious.”
“Yes it is – very serious – because if you keep messing about I shall have to stand here in full public view and take a pee and it will be because of you that I shall have to expose myself. Now will you let me go into the toilet, please?”
They looked at each other, “Be quick about it then, Sir.”
I went in, took my time, certain of the outcome, and was very carefully drying my hands when the large officer came in, “Need to go too, Officer – good job I stopped here, wasn’t it?”
“No, Sir – you were a long time so I thought I should find out what you’re doing,” he said looking up at the tiny barred window with evident relief, “I’ll wait for you by your car.”
Five minutes later after ‘paying’ for my pee with a nice cool lemonade, out I sauntered. Now had I been drinking I would have had plenty of time to chuck a couple of evidence-destroying whiskeys down my throat – but I hadn’t been, so the lemonade was just right.
“Now, Officer, what may I help you with?”
“What is your name and address, Sir – and do you have your driving licence to hand?”
I gave them the details they asked for, took my licence from my wallet, and opened it on the pages they were entitled to see – those with my personal details and what I was qualified to drive.
The officer went to take it. “I can’t let you take it – but everything you need to see is in front of you.”
“Why won’t you let me look at it properly,” he asked, suspiciously, “do you have something to hide?”
“I have nothing to hide, but you are only entitled to read the two pages I have offered you.”
“You’re trying to hide your previous offences – is that it, Sir?”
“If I have offences, which I am not admitting, you are not entitled to see them.”
“Think you know the law, do you, Sir?”
“So far, probably more than you.”
He went red in the face with anger, “I won’t press that point, Sir. Do you have any idea why we stopped you?”
“You didn’t stop me.”
“Of course we...let me rephrase that, Sir. Do you know why we stopped behind you and why we are talking to you now?”
“You have nothing better to do, Officer?”
His hackles were clearly up. “You committed a moving traffic offence, Sir – as you well remember, which is why you nipped up this side road in an attempt to lose us,” he crowed.
“I have no idea about any moving traffic offence, Occifer.”
“Are you sure you haven’t been drinking?”
“I had a lemonade in the pub there, while you were waiting. If I had been drinking I would have been able to drink something alcoholic, wouldn’t I?”
“So you could beat the breathalyser?”
“Not at all. You are quite free to breathalyse me but it would be a waste of time on two counts.”
“Two counts, Sir?”
“Yes, firstly you would have to demonstrate that I did indeed commit the moving traffic offence you allege and even then the opportunity you afforded me to consume alcohol in the pub would render any such test null and void.”
“I cannot smell alcohol on your breath, Sir, I grant you that, so we’ll not be pursuing the breathalyser – but you did commit a moving traffic offence.”
“Before the traffic lights you were not wearing a seatbelt, Sir.”
“When did you observe this, Officer?” I asked, feigning resignation and capitulation.
“As we drove past you in the traffic queue – we saw you put the belt on because you’d spotted us behind you.”
“Was that when you were coming up behind me, when you passed me by, or when you came to a standstill?”
“When we passed you.”
I took out my diary and wrote, ‘At 14.23...’ – I read his number, F1772 – “Your name please, Constable...?”
“Er, Bannister – Sir, why?”
I continued writing, ‘…F1772, PC Bannister explained that he believes that as his police car slowly passed me in a queue, he saw me putting on my seatbelt at the by-pass traffic lights in Darnham.’ I held it up for him to read but he did not attempt this time to take what I held before him. Funny, I thought that he should understand he has no right to take my diary because it’s private, yet believes he has a right to handle my driving licence. “Do you agree with what I have written, Constable?” I asked feigning humility.
“Yes, Sir – are you now admitting you were not wearing a seatbelt?”
“Perhaps if you would do one of two things, I might.”
“Such as what, Sir?”
“Either you sign my diary or write the same up in your notebook.”
“I’ll write it in my notebook.” He did and showed it to me.
“Come off it, Constable. I’ve not yet admitted to anything so you must delete that part saying
‘Mr Stevens admitted...’ until Mr Stevens does in fact admit.”
“Does it make any difference, Sir, if you’re going to admit it?”
“Of course it does, because your timing would not agree with what I have in my diary.”
He crossed the piece out angrily and initialled it, “Now Sir, as to your admission.”
“Oh yes – I admit I was putting my seatbelt on while waiting to move in the traffic queue before the traffic lights.”
“Thank you, Sir,” he said and wrote my words in his notebook, “In the light of your confession I shall caution you for not wearing a seatbelt and offer you the chance of a fixed penalty notice of £40.”
“But you can’t do that.”
“Because as I said and you wrote down, I was waiting to move which implies I was stationary and the law does not require me to wear a seatbelt when stationary.”
“Now you’re splitting hairs, Sir. We observed you were not wearing your seatbelt immediately prior to your car becoming stationary and then we saw you fitting your seatbelt – so you are quite aware that a seatbelt must be worn during all movements,” he said stiffly, handing me back the fixed penalty notice.”
“I’m afraid I cannot accept that, Constable – you have no evidence.”
“We blood...blooming-well saw you – we need no other evidence.”
“Who is the ‘we’ you are referring to, Constable?”
“Me and my driver, PC Hutchings.”
“Who was, ‘as you said’, driving slowly past at the relevant time?”
“Yes, Sir, confirmed the driver.”
“Well that’s it then,” I said, heading for my car, you have no evidence so you must let me go.”
PC Bannister headed after me as if to apprehend me, “I wouldn’t do that, Sir or I shall be forced to arrest you.”
I turned and looked him in the eyes, “I suggest you read up on the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, latest amendment – you have no evidence because you have no witness.”
“My driver saw...” realisation partly dawned.
“That’s right PC Bannister – your driver was moving at the material time and as such he is disqualified from acting as a witness. Now you have my name and address; you may choose to caution me that you intend to press charges and we would all have to spend a pleasant day in the magistrates’ court. I would of course plead not guilty and seek costs – but it’s your decision.”
He stuck his nose up close to mine, “Why don’t you just piss off, Mr Know-all.”
“I’d be delighted to, Cont-stable, why ever didn’t you suggest that earlier...?”
I hope you have enjoyed reading 'Belt Up' which is from Short Fews 2, a collection of 8 humorous short stories and is available to buy on Amazon Kindle or if you still need convincing,
you can read more excerpts from Short Fews 2
Reg was driving and we could see people quite clearly on the town’s pavements next to the River Bure which the map said was a good place to stop and explore Great Yarmouth and eat in waterside inns. I just hoped they’d let me in. Reg found a vacant spot and had his sons tie up to the bollards front and back. It was getting quite dark but I could vaguely see another warning notice saying something about tides, but thought we wouldn’t get swept away because Reg’s sons were Scouts and had tightened us up well with some strong knots. After changing, we headed off and found a good pub five minutes away, but they wouldn’t let me in so we sat outside and waited for the food dad had ordered to be brought.
My pie and chips were delicious and I even got to mop up dozens of chips that the others had left. Dad even let me taste his beer but it was awful and made me shudder. The two men laughed at me, “I’ll never drink that again – ever,” I grimaced prophetically. I think my dad and Reg might have had a bit too much to drink and I was quite pleased when they announced it was time to turn in. Reg almost fell into our boat and dad had to help him to his bed in the boat’s pointy bit. I clambered happily into my bed and before long the boat echoed to snoring, farting and the odd cough but otherwise a welcome silence, as if everything was right with the world and all our troubles were behind us.
They certainly weren’t behind us – they were in front of us factually and metaphorically. At some time in the night, there was an almighty bang, like a firework going off, which woke me and I fell out of bed. I hadn’t done this for ages and hoped it didn’t mean I’d disgrace myself with the other problem I had. I sat on the floor listening, but nothing. It felt like we were moving and I sat there thinking about my embarrassing problem and whether I should head for the toilet, but it was crazily downhill, I must be dreaming and I was afraid I’d have that awful dream where I was going in to some public toilets, desperate ‘to go’. In the dream I was ever so pleased I’d found a public toilet. Funny why it was always a public toilet where I started peeing, before that familiar warmth enveloped me and I realised that yet again I’d wet myself. ‘Please God,’ I prayed, ‘don’t let me wet the bed this holiday.’ It was bad enough at home where I could run and confess to my mum, who’d change the bed and console me with a cuddle, but here with these ‘big boys’ I’d never live it down. But I decided I didn’t need to ‘go’ and after a struggle I managed to get back in to bed. Yet I had a job staying in. It was like the boat had been last night but downhill the other way, so I tucked my arm down by the side of the mattress and eventually went back to sleep.
I can’t remember what woke me, but I pulled back the curtain above Graham’s feet to look across the pavement, but I found myself looking across the river. Peter was on the other side – it was like a ‘Π’ shape where I was the horizontal dumpling between two long, cool ‘Sweets’. Anyway, I reached carefully across Peter’s feet and pulled his curtain back only to see a wall. I wandered out to the cockpit, unzipped the hood and there was the quayside two feet above us and we were facing back the way we had come. I was still trying to puzzle it out when my dad came and stood next to me, “Bloody hell – look there’s our mooring rope.” I followed his pointing finger and there, forty-odd feet behind us, was our rope dangling down and some way above the water, our brass deck cleat was still tied to it.
We climbed out on deck and inched our way to the front where two ragged holes marked the spot where our mooring cleat should have been. As we turned to go back to the cockpit, my dad saw one of several notices painted on the wall, just like the one I’d seen last night, but which I hadn’t read properly in the dark. It was quite clear now – it said: Warning this river is tidal with a distance between high and low water of ten feet. If you moor at high water, make sure you tie up with enough slack to allow your boat to drop with the tide. We hadn’t and it had dropped. It must have hung there almost out of the water before the forward cleat screws gave up the struggle, the front had plunged back into the water and I was thrown out of bed. If I had known in those wee small hours what was going on, they really would have brought about wee in the small hours, more from fear than lavatorial dreams.
When the Sweets surfaced, we told them the sorry tale, and decided to clear off before we were taken to be illiterate and a familiar phrase rang out, “Theym did’norta let citee toypes looze in bowts.”
We turned around and skedaddled up river to a welcome marina where my dad was able to fill her up with diesel and make up for what we’d used getting out of Great Yarmouth docks. They had a café there too, so we had breakfast while going over the previous day’s disasters. They didn’t have a cleat in the shop there, but said that the marina at Potter Heigham would most likely have one. We should have retrieved the one last seen swinging in the breeze at Yarmouth; we just hoped the name of our boat wasn’t stamped on that cleat that we’d left hanging for all to see and recognise somebody’s stupidity, worse still return it to the boatyard and blow our incompetence. But at least this calamity wasn’t seen to be my fault. Fortunately for me, Peter and Graham wrongly got the blame because the two adults on board should have been able to read the warning notices before we headed for the pub, even though they couldn’t read anything after staggering back.
Next stop Potter Heigham. Had we known exactly how we were going to stop there, I think we might have turned around and gone home. It was a nice day with only a slight breeze kicking the odd fleece up on the water. Dad said to take it easy because he wanted to arrive there for lunchtime. I remember seeing some quite big fish in the weed beds by the riverside and thought that if I concentrated on missing yachts and all waterborne things that could herald disaster; I might see if dad would buy me a fishing set.
I was chugging on at a very slow walking pace sorting out a list of good reasons why I should have a fishing rod, topmost being nice fried fish and chips of our own making and bottom of the list currently was to take me away from the steering. Reg was sitting up front with his back against the fore-cabin windows reading a book and he suddenly shouted to my dad, “Gord – quick, I can’t believe this bridge.” I throttled back and tried to get it in reverse but it wouldn’t engage – Reg sprang up and slapped his foot against the bridge but he had to duck before he got squashed. We carried on drifting through until the cockpit and the edges of the folded-down screen scraped along the underside of the bridge before almost landing in the cockpit with us. Dad got it in forward gear and put some power on so we wouldn’t get stuck underneath and we scraped through and moored up to take stock of the latest damage we’d inflicted on the poor old Temptress.
Father pushed the shattered cockpit screen back into place. Fortunately the glass or whatever material it was, remained undamaged but I could see the mahogany frame around the two panes, was no longer joined in a couple of places. Dad took solemn stock of what he would need to rectify everything and we headed off for lunch in the marina’s cafeteria.
The marina shop was huge and probably owned by the same people who’d built that stupidly low bridge perhaps with malice aforethought. I only knew one other bridge that was as low and that was a railway bridge over a road between Muchelney and Drayton, near Curry Rivel on the Somerset levels. Even I, as a nipper, could reach up and touch the main girders that spanned the road and cars could just pass underneath. Bigger things, if they didn’t want to rip their tops off, had to drive up and over the railway line via some gates. That wasn’t too bad because at least you had an option – at Potter Heigham there was but one other – turn around and go back. But at least we were through and dad seemed to have a trick up his sleeve for our return appointment with that bridge, but now the lure of the evocative-sounding Hickling Broad drew us on and would nearly consume one of our Sweets.
We passed by some wonderful waterside houses – some like mansions and also churches in the middle of nowhere. But Hickling Broad was nothing like any of us had pictured – just a huge expanse of water with yachts charging around willy-nilly. Then for no reason Peter fell in. I saw him go under but he didn’t come up. His father shouted and muttered he didn’t understand it, because he was a strong swimmer. We turned the boat around but still no Peter. His dad stripped down to his underpants and jumped in. He immediately bobbed about gargling curses because his glasses had fallen off and he thrashed around blindly, half drowning and shouting. Like lemmings, we all joined in except my dad, who couldn’t swim. I was amazed by the weeds which seemed to reach up as if trying to drag me under – then suddenly Peter appeared and we all got hauled back aboard. I was told that Peter had epilepsy, had fallen in and lain twitching in the weeds until Graham had found him and pushed him to the surface. We moored up for the night and for the first time we played a game of cricket, although Peter was feeling very fragile from his epileptic dive that could so easily have been fatal, just because he’d forgotten his tablets.
In the morning, we headed back to Potter Heigham and moored up short and away from prying eyes so that dad and Reg could set about repairs that almost amounted to a major overhaul. I was only able to scrounge 10 shillings and we three boys headed for the shop where I found I hadn’t enough money for a rod and reel but purchased a wooden frame with some line wrapped around it, some hooks and lugworms. The shop owner said that the fish around here were easily caught with bread flakes. I left my bits and pieces at the shop to be collected on our return, which was just as well because we got lost and at least my bait had been put back in the fridge. We wandered over to Potter Heigham station and watched a train deposit a few people but pick up nobody. We ran up on the bridge and watched the level crossing gates swing across the road before the train went off into the unknown – just as we did! Somehow we’d wandered off in the wrong direction, because we forgot we’d gone over the footbridge and changed platforms. Anyway, we found ourselves reaching the end of a narrowing lane which became a rutted track and we were just about to turn back when a tractor hove into view. The driver told us that if we continued and turned right after two hundred yards we’d get back to the main road where a left turn would soon have us standing on top of the canopy-busting bridge.
There was a fish and chip van parked in the marina and Graham used some pocket money to buy enough for all of us and we headed back to the boat after a diversion for my fishing gear. Dad and Reg were getting on like a house on fire and were just varnishing the repaired canopy. There was a new shiny cleat at the front and the huge dent caused by that weaving yacht had disappeared. We all sat on the grass to scoff the fish and chips while admiring their handiwork that covered a multitude of very naughty sins.
We tried some fishing that afternoon but neither bread or lugworms would tempt the fish onto the hook – it was a good job we’d had fish for lunch because we certainly wouldn’t be having it for dinner. We climbed aboard and dad took the boat and tacked on to the end of the queue waiting for the pilot to take boats through the bridge without collision. He was good that pilot, his path through the less than liberal space was almost the same each time and if he was lucky there was a balanced working – drop one off, bring one back and so on – but there has to be a balance in all things and we were like the scales of the Old Bailey – we did not balance for him,
“Zorry – that class a boats don’t go unner this bridge.”
“Well we’m already ’ere,” replied my dad in Somerset yokel dialect, hoping for sympathy, “so why cassn’t ee take it back again?”
“’Cos I dint bring ’er through,” said the pilot, “I saw thee knock her canopy off before and I’ll have to watch thee do it again – I’m sorry.”
“What do we do, then?” growled my father.
“We-ell if I were thee, I’d go and moor up again where you hid to fix her up. Good job by the way – pity thee’lI ‘ave to do it all again. Yes I’d moor-up and do a dance like the red injuns do but t’other way round so we ‘ave no rain over night – ’cos if we do thee’ll be stuck ’ere a fortnight. First thing, when the river’s at its lowest and no bugger’s around to see you ‘part from me, you can take her through slowly like. Oh and if thee wants a better chance of not undoing yer ‘andiwork you could try pumping some water in her bilges. I’d draw a line a foot ‘bove the waterline then chuck water in ’er like there’s no tomorrow – about two hundred gallons might do ee. Then ’er might get through but don’t blame I if ’er don’t.”
We didn’t bother with the rain-dance, we figured that bit was a joke, but dad reversed the pipes on the bilge pump and we took it in turns like shipwrecked sailors fighting for survival. We augmented this with a dribbling hosepipe from a nearby tap and four of us in a bucket chain. We grafted till well after dark when our redrawn plimsoll line disappeared and dad reckoned we ought to call a halt in case we sunk during our sleep.
Six in the morning we were ready for the off – well we weren’t ready ’cos that bloody line was two inches above the water again. How had that happened? Peter should have known – he was the bright spark. However, he was still off-colour and Graham had barely been at the school long enough to know how to separate salt from sand, let alone about temperature influence, pressure gradients and density of water. We pumped some more in until the pilot hollered, “You’ve got five minutes – my first booking’ll be ’ere then.”
Dad took the controls and even I could feel that the old tub was ponderously crabbing through the water. He headed for where the pilot started and the man yelled, “Better line ’er up and keep going ’cos with all that weight you’ll ‘ave to put on full power to get thee rudder to do anything or thee won’t be able to steer her – I’ll give ee a nudge with me pole to help but the rests up to thee.”
The bridge looked even smaller with hardly any light coming through and a dark reflection on the water. Dad kept close to the pilot’s barge then put on some power and steered the pilot’s course. The old man gave us the promised nudge to stop her tail from coming round and through we went safe and sound, apart from the folding canopy which this time landed with a crash at my feet in the cockpit. My father used those new words again, and a few more, before we moored up and he set to re-fixing the canopy while the rest of us bashed away at the bilge pump until we’d got rid of those two hundred gallons of water. “Dad, why didn’t you fix the canopy after we’d gone through the bridge?” He lunged for my lughole which he didn’t miss either.
Three hours later, after a cup of coffee, we headed off down the river, certain we would not moor up at Yarmouth and would turn right after the railway bridge so as to avoid the harbour. Nor would we have any encounters with retired admirals – real or imaginary. We had had enough and even the long journey home held promise – but we had survived.
I went back to Norfolk in my campervan four years ago. There’s a new road that follows the long-closed railway line. Apart from the evidence of strikes by a few more hapless boats on the underside, in the past half a century – it looks much the same as when I’d first seen it – except I’m sure there’s an indentation just above the arch where a size nine shoe once landed.
I hope you have enjoyed reading 'Broadside' which is from Short Fews 1, a collection of 8 humorous short stories and is available to buy on Amazon Kindle or if you still need convincing,
you can read more excerpts from Short Fews 1
She was put back in the water by a big crane and Yorik went up and down the river a few times before pronouncing that all was well. We loaded all our provisions on board including milk and butter Reg’s sons Peter and Graham had been entrusted with half-a-crown to get from the village grocer’s.
There was no bottle broken across her prow, no marshal music and no crowds whooping and cheering. Just a yokel and a blacksmith looking on anxiously as we took up station in the middle of the flow and set off for Yarmouth. “Keep to the right – and give way to ya...” hollered Yorik.
“What?” we shouted back.
“Can I drive Dad – please...please?”
“Okay, but stay over to the right – I’m going to do us some bacon and eggs so look out for somewhere nice to moor up.”
“Can we play French cricket Dad – after breakfast?”
“Perhaps,” he offered unconvincingly.
We didn’t. With them all down below I looked on anxiously at some boat that was weaving up the river towards us. First he went one side, then the other – his great big sail twisting and billowing again and again in the wind.
Undecided, I called for a second opinion like a doctor confronted with something new and nasty, “Dad – Da-aa-ad, quick Dad, there’s this boat and he’s...”
The yacht drove into us like a destroyer ramming a U-boat. It knocked me off the driving seat and my dad was thrown back down the steps into the galley. I sat on the floor wondering if the yachtsman might be drunk. Not that I knew what drunk meant exactly but I had seen a film where Laurel and Hardy had weaved a car all over the road and were stopped by a policeman who made them walk the white line. They couldn’t even see it, so I reckon that’s what drunk meant. I peeped over the side of our boat and watched as a man dressed like an admiral with a smart white peaked-cap sprinted along his deck towards us, as sober as a judge and about to pass judgement, “Who was steering this boat?” I ducked down again and hid on the floor, fearing the worst. “You stupid sods!” shouted the man, “who’s in charge of this ruddy boat? Don’t you know you have to give way to yachts?” He continued forward and inspected his pointy bit that had whacked into our side, “You’re bloody lucky there’s no damage to my yacht – bloody-well watch where you’re going and give way to yachts in future.”
We continued down river with Reg at the wheel – I was in disgrace and worried I’d never drive again. My fate seemed to be confirmed, “He’s made a right mess of this boat,” growled my father, “I shall have to buy a piece of mahogany in Yarmouth and scarf it in – good job I brought some tools. A bit of varnish, some white paint and Bob’s your uncle.” He was too, but my Uncle Bob had wisely opted for a week in a caravan in Cornwall. He’d been on minesweepers during the war and had originally seemed the ideal companion for this sort of holiday. He must have known a bit about boats and the risks with me on board, so had cried off. Without Aunty Joyce, my mum had backed out too and dad, having paid the deposit, talked his mate into coming. It would have been obvious even to a village idiot that we two men and three boys, messing about on the Norfolk Broads, were heading for disasters Jerome K. Jerome couldn’t have imagined.
“Bloody good job I hadn’t got the bacon in the pan or we’d have lost the lot – pull up over there Reg,” dad cried excitedly, pointing to some flat ground beneath a windmill on the opposite bank, “I’ll finish the breakfast and then take a better look at the damage.”
“And the cricket, Dad?” His look said it all.
We sat out on the grass and ate our bacon, eggs and fried bread. If cholesterol existed back then, which I doubt ’cos my dear old grandma, who was nothing but goodness personified, would never have fed me the things she did. Anyway, I wouldn’t have taken much convincing it was the ‘goodness’ that came out of cauliflowers. Everything was full of goodness my mum reckoned, but cauliflowers?
Graham and Peter ran off to explore the windmill and I went with them. We didn’t have any windmills in Somerset that I knew of and I looked on enthralled as Peter, a fourteen year old clever-clogs at the local grammar school explained that it wasn’t a windmill but a wind pump to take the water from the reclaimed land and shift it into the rivers and drainage channels. I looked across at my dad crouching down to examine the damage – definitely no cricket and time to go, but I hadn’t thrown in the towel quite yet, “If I’m careful, Dad and tell you straight away if there’s a problem, will you let me drive again?”
“Only if Mr Sweet will watch you and agree you’re safe!”
I drove like my life depended on it, calling attention to boats, logs and just about anything Mr Sweet should know about, including a passing skein of geese which might decide to bomb us. At the end of ten minutes, he could take no more of my running commentary, pronounced me fit to drive with care, and went below, yawning.
His sons seemed disinterested in driving, perhaps they’d developed some sort of antithesis to all forms of driving so as to avoid following in their father’s footsteps. At one stage, I pulled in to the side to make sure another yacht, tacking with malign intent, left us in peace. We’d sailed by Acle where we had thought about stopping yesterday evening. All around was flatness – not boring flatness because there were things to gaze at which often drew my concentration from the river. Fearing another catastrophe I refused to look at cows and windmills, the latter being hard to ignore, and concentrated only on things in the water. I saw moorhens, water rats and even swans as we sailed on into a huge lake beyond which I could see buildings and church towers. The map said there was a wide stretch of water before Great Yarmouth called Braydon Water so I knew that when it narrowed I had to turn sharply north.
Suddenly it narrowed and a railway line come in from the left and ran parallel to us, but the map wasn’t too clear. I reckoned we had about a mile to go before we turned north toward our destination – Hickling Broad. I tried to gauge our speed as if there was a bicycle by the side of us. We seemed to be going faster – maybe this bit was downhill. Then a train chugged past and when it whistled, I waved happily to the passengers on the train. I watched it as it rumbled slowly across a trestle bridge. I could see the train driver waving too – almost frantically and he was making his engine whistle too. Perhaps he knew this boat and saw it quite often, I thought – so I waved even faster. I watched the train devotedly as it rattled on and just as it sounded its whistle a few more times something caught my eye as I said goodbye to that nice train driver.
I thought I saw a big red notice and an arrow on a wall but hadn’t time to read it because our boat seemed to be romping along, even though I throttled back. The river got even wider and on each side of us were big, very big ships everywhere, with people shouting and waving – one ship let out several booming blasts on its hooter and I knew I was in trouble, “Dad...Da-aa-ad...Oh dad...I’ve got it wrong again.” I started to cry – it was, I hoped, my only defence. My dad came from below and uttered a strange word beginning with ‘eff’, then another ending in ‘locks’. He grabbed the wheel and turned us around and thrust the throttle to full.
However, on full power we were barely making headway against the current so after more than two hours and now in the dusk we passed by that red warning sign with the big arrow, telling all craft of danger, “How could you miss that damned sign? It’s big enough, Richard.” He was right and it dawned on me that the waving and whistling were warnings not greetings that only a bad boy could have mistaken, but I was tired and hungry and happily helping to find somewhere to moor-up for the night.
You can read Broadside Part 1 and Broadside Part 3 here
'Broadside' is from Short Fews 1 a collection of 8 humorous short stories and is available to buy on Amazon Kindle or you can read more excerpts from Short Fews 1 and Short Fews 2 here
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