I love driving things – animate and inanimate. Teachers mad, women wild (I can dream can’t I?) and parents to the wall – I expect you can come up with a few more...Answers on a postcard please.
In the inanimate section apart from ‘hard bargains’, I’ve driven trains, cars, lorries, motorbikes, aeroplanes, but not many boats. I tried it once and Higher Authority looked down on my disastrous experience and He said ‘no more’. He should have said the same to the captain of the Costa Concordia long before he became a Captain, in fact long before he left school; but He has the Pope to look after His affairs and to do His work in Italy, so it wasn’t God’s fault the captain slipped under His radar.
Anyway, He must have had His beady eye on me the day my father and I, his mate Reg Sweet and two teenage sons headed off from the West Country to Norfolk for a week on the Broads. This was in 1958, in pre-motorway England – pre-motorway apart from perhaps the Preston By-pass, but, up there in the north-west, knocking on Scotland’s door, it wasn’t much good to us.
The journey took forever, or seemed to, even though I slept most of the way, in between eating and then yawning (of the tomato skins and grated carrot kind). Excitement echoed around the trusty Ford Consul as we crept towards our embarkation point – a shipyard just east of Norwich on the River Yare. We had thought we might moor up for dinner at Acle that evening. But this decision was only based on the rudimentary river and Broads map sent to my dad when the booking was confirmed. We had no idea what might be open for food and it was too far to Great Yarmouth so, luckily as it turned out, we decided on fish and chip sustenance well before we arrived at the boatyard late that fateful Saturday afternoon.
We had enough supplies in tins and jars to last most of the week, my mum had been squirreling rations away for weeks. However, I was a consummate eater so supplementation would be required. It did not occur to me at the time, but my dad must have decided on some diversion to take my mind off its body-stretching preoccupation with food, so as to eke out the supplies. What he dreamed up was clever and did work but as it turned out, it was a dangerous, high-risk strategy.
These days people seem to be able to stuff their faces anywhere, walking, driving and even cycling – in fact a week ago I’d needed to use a public toilet and was washing my hands after the urinal, when a cistern flushed. Out came a bloke in his thirties clutching a burger. He clamped it between his teeth so as to wash his hands, I assumed. But no, he took out his comb and ran it through his hair. Then he took the burger with what I guessed was his unsullied left hand. He returned the comb to his pocket and, ignoring my incredulous look, strolled out munching his burger. Truly it’s a different world!
Returning to 1958, it was obvious from the start, in fact even before the start, that our boat was jinxed. As soon as we pulled into the boatyard, it glowered at us from its high-and-dry position above the slipway. Dad and his mate knocked and went into the office while the two young Sweets waited patiently outside. I wandered off and walked around what I soon discovered was intended to be our cabin cruiser, but why was it not where it was supposed to be – in the water?
I circled it quizzically pondering its lofty, tilted stance. At the back, they don’t call it that, do they? It’ll do though – at the back, her name was beautifully sign-written in red-edged gold. Look, I don’t give a damn whether boats are male, female or bloody neutered – this one was definitely a female because of all the boobs she had waiting for us in the next few days. Her name was supposed to be appealing but, with her forlornly propped-up, it was an unrequited enticement. There it was at the top of the D shaped back, sitting just below the flat piece at the top where the deck starts – ‘Temptress III’. If I had known what she would bring us, I’d have found a ladder and a pot of paint and changed it to The Tempest. My well-placed maiden aunt in London had taken me to see John Gielgud in The Tempest at Stratford and it had shaken me; now I feared that I might be a re-born Prospero, about to embark before the storm. But how was I to know how fitting Shakespeare’s play would turn out to be?
There were no ladders or paint to be seen anywhere in this prop-filled, theatrical boatyard in deepest Norfolk but Temptress was most certainly a ‘she’ and she did have a hole. I was only ten but I wasn’t quite the innocent my mum thought I was. I’d played doctors and nurses in the long-grass-summer days when the girls always were the nurses or patients and we boys eagerly examined the bits that were different from ours. But as far as boats were concerned I was an innocent abroad. Yet there behind the steering thingy – the...rud...yes that’s it, behind the rudder, was a pretty little hole, sitting right near her bottom just crying out for a penetrating examination.
Nobody was watching, so I reached up on tiptoe and inserted my finger into that inviting orifice. I recoiled – it felt slimy and cold. She obviously had not been pleased with my probing, because my finger was now covered in something brown and slippery – come off it – I was only ten – in an age of innocence; there was only one hole after all. Suddenly I was no longer alone. The others had arrived and gathered around like a consultant around a patient with a group of medical students. Quickly I tucked my finger away in my fist and feigned innocence.
There was a tall man in a blue boiler suit pointing to the hole as if he somehow knew of my intrusion and my dad and his mate Reg were gazing up at it like it meant something. “I’ve sent it down the local blacksmith’s to have it straightened,” he gabbled in an accent more yokel than even we yokels were used to, “it should be back first thing.”
My dad was fed-up. I knew he was because he was wearing that face he’d worn when I’d stripped down his bike’s three-speed and lost one of the gears. “Where are we going to sleep tonight?” he demanded.
“There’s a B&B in the village – you can walk to it easy enough.” said Yorik the yokel.
“You’ll be paying for us then, won’t you?” said Dad the demanding.
“Or give us back one day’s hire charge for the day we’ll lose,” suggested Reg the realistic.
“Ahr, I’ll do that right enough,” agreed Yorik the yes-man.
My dad looked askance at his mate for scuppering his plan for a good night’s sleep, “Where shall we put our heads down then?”
“You can sleep on board – it’s all right on these props,” he said, kicking one timidly, and then eyeing us one by one, “just don’t go bouncing around too much.”
He found a ladder and we climbed aboard. It was like trying to stand on a ski slope – on the piste, so to speak. We sat holding tightly to the kitchen table; Reg told us it wasn’t a kitchen but a galley. When he spoke it was always important – perhaps that’s why he’d chosen to drive taxis – they get to go to a special school to learn how to be a know-all, don’t they?
“Dad,” I asked, with visions of our being pulled along by a carthorse like those old-fashioned canal boats, “what was that man going on about the blacksmith’s for?”
“The prop shaft is bent – it’s at the blacksmith’s,” came the weary reply, as if knowing he would have to say more.
“Is that something to do with the thing he kicked – he said that was a prop.”
He had that look again, I would get just one more answer without pain, “Don’t be bloody stupid, Richard. The prop shaft is the thing that goes in at the back and connects to the engine; it’s got the propeller on it that drives the boat through the water.” As if I should know all this at ten years-old!
“You mean in that hole at the back, near the bottom?” I asked, with growing relief – releasing and holding up my still brown finger, what’s this then, Dad?” He grabbed my hand and looked his most concerned, “Hmmm – molybdenum graphite – I should say – it’s serious stuff. How long’s your finger been like that? Please tell me you didn’t put your finger in that hole – you didn’t – did you?”
Near to tears I nodded my head violently, “I did, Dad – oh Dad, what’s this Molly Bendum thingy – will I lose my finger?”
“You shouldn’t if you wash it off quickly,” he continued, “let that be a lesson to you. Do not go sticking your finger into inviting holes, one day it could get you a life sentence.”
“What do you mean, Dad?” My bottom lip curled, but he and Reg just burst out laughing and told me to go out to the toilets and wash my finger. I didn’t understanding what they found so funny. I was pleased I hadn’t suffered a clip round the ear. I bawled my way to the gents, worried about what was on my finger, looking like it had gone through the Izal at school. Are you old enough to remember that indelicate tissue that doubled as tracing paper? I’d convinced myself that hole was where the boat’s toilet emptied into the river and my finger might have to be ampu... amput...cut off.
The others didn’t sleep well that night, but it wasn’t too bad for me across the rear above that hole because I was thrust backwards, but for the others it must have been a bit like trying to sleep in a hammock slung between one tall and one short tree.
A noise below woke me in the morning and I pulled on my clothes to find the boat empty and everybody gathered at the back watching a man standing on a box with a determined look about him. I heard my father muttering something about his looking like a horse at stud, as the man tried repeatedly to insert the great long shaft into that dear little hole. Suddenly the tip of it entered and he slipped it in with obvious relief. He removed a piece of rag and wiped all around the shaft before jiggling it in to his satisfaction, then wiped around the end to reveal a shiny yellow three bladed propeller. He had got his breath back and was telling Reg he’d had to straighten this along with the shaft he’d just slipped in. He had been moaning all the time he’d been putting the shaft in, especially about the previous people on the boat and how they’d buggered it up by reversing into a brick pier. “Theym did’norta let citee toypes looze in bowts,” he growled at Reg, as if ’cos we talked like yokels we’d know how to sail a boat any better than someone from Birmingham.
As it happens, poor old Temptress the Turd as I’d end up calling her, suffered more at our hands than she probably had from the city crew, but we didn’t trifle with her prop or anything tucked away down-below, like. Everything we inflicted on her was out in the open, exposed and touchable – visible for all the world to see.
Read Broadside Part 2 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