Well there was atmospheric for you, yes indeed.
This Monday past I had asked – via the electric interwebnets – for the “fuel boat” nb Halsall to call as they were on their rounds. Delays in their own suppliers’ deliveries and the extra demand of this, the “Silly Season” (you may know it as “Christmas”), meant that it was eight o’clockery in the evening before I felt the slightly stronger-than-is-usual wash of an approaching boat.
There is a signature wash to each action on the canals. With your common or garden variety of narrowboat that signature is a gentle rocking produced from any narrows that an approaching boat may travel through, and/or when they are within two or three hundred yards.
The fuel boats are big beasties. Thirty and more tonnes when laden, as Halsall was for this winter round, and the signature there is a necessarily very much more energetic wash, a tad of rock and delicious roll, warning of an approaching boat of serious proportions.
I read the signals correctly, stuck my head rather adventurously out into the pitch black of the December night, waved away thick strands of fleshy, greasy, freezing fog and called out my usual welcoming cry.
‘Bugger off, I’m holed up here with plenty of fire-power. I have a blunderbuss loaded with grape and chain and I’m not afraid to use it! You have a count of three to change to a starboard tack and make sail away before I put one through your hull.”
Back came the carefully-worded, pre-arranged reply.
‘Do you want your coal or not, Admiral Pugwash?’
I flipped on the Cardinal’s eleventy-twelve kilowatt decklights, punching light out two or three feet into the murkiness in all directions. There was indeed the shadow of a friendly leviathan nudging alongside the Cardinal, and twas Halsall, laden with fine combustibles and ropes and all manner of ironwork arrangements.
With their characteristic skill Halsall came alongside, lashed up and all that was required of me was to kneel on the well-deck and stack my winter fuel for the forthcoming weeks. In the depths of winter, in the middle of the evening, in thick, freezing fog, in the middle of nowhere in particular, it was the very least work I’ve ever had to do when bunkering. Splendid stuff.
The delivery even came with a “thanks for being a customer” bottle of beer, which went down very well indeed with the crew (me).
All that was then required, and somewhat at odds with the “murder in Victorian Whitechapel” feel to the whole transaction, was to slip my bank card into the mobile card reader and key in my shoe size followed by my IQ (my PIN is 1111). Job done in ten minutes.
There’s something fantastically “alternative” at the best of times about buying fuel while afloat, from another boat, in the middle of nowhere. On a dark, foggy canal with Periwinkles Throat-Slasher owls hooting in the hedgerow it is oddly, for something so domestic, quite magical. Instead of coal we might have been exchanging barrels of rum, the silverware proceeds of some robbery at a lonely manor house or waifs and strays to be transported in the lower cargo hold to some Manchester cotton mill – warpers, wefters, weavers and fluff monkeys at 2/- 6d a pop, if healthy(ish) on delivery.
It was coal, I tell you, all that changed hands was coal.
Seriously – coal. That was all. Well, coal and beer.
To accomplish the whole transaction without dropping the mobile card reader into the drink between our boats was a bonus due, I think, to my being paranoid about doing so and thus taking ridiculous amounts of care.
There are eight sacks stashed away indoors now, with sufficient kindling to keep Mr Stove fed 24×7 for a month should that prove necessary.
Of the “cloaked terror of Whitechapel” we saw nothing, I am happy to report, although I did close and lock up very swiftly as Halsall loosed his lines and chugged away to make other deliveries out there in the freezing, foggy darkness…
There was one last hoot from a Periwinkles Throat-Slasher owl, an answering shriek from the winter-coated Sodbucket’s Sabre-toothed squirrel, and I shot the last bolt on the hatches and retreated inside to the stove and my cocoa.
Fortified cocoa, naturally.
A good live-aboard narrowboater in winter is always thoroughly fortified, ready for these eventualities.
Thank you, Halsall.