A river story for Boxing Day. Set on the Stort, Lea, Thames and Medway and written exclusively for Caught by the River by one of the first on the firm, Mr. Dexter Petley.
Limehouse Basin late one May, a breeze with refinery and road drill, the skunk of an evening tide. Tugs from Woolwich eastbound, Cardiff dredgers seaward, all rust to the wind. The water poet Hector tucks his scarf against the chill, clay pipe 50p clamped in his teeth, astride under rotten timbers, Wharf 3, on his first ever boat. Moored with a cauliflower of knots, listing to starboard. The water poet suspects he’s a stowaway in make belief, but he bought the blue deck shoes before he even thought of living on a boat. In the gathering chill he can’t turn the pages of Riddle of the Sands. He looks at the anchor on the cover. Wonders if he needs an anchor on his boat or his arm.
The humid Navy shag is a success. Every drag thumps him in the lung like the slap of a shipmate. Liquid tar pours down the pipe stem. Makes him feel like he’s survived the first squall. He whistles a shanty which puffs him out after the third Haul Away Joe.
His boat is called Excalibur, the sword which sank. Perhaps the benefits of his evening on the wheelhouse deck have improved his attitude to Excalibur’s cabin. Down the wheelhouse steps he goes, through the hatch. The stench of bilge and oil and mouldy rags. His neck and back ache already. He walks forward to inspect the one nice brass porthole. Cloop. His foot goes straight through the plank and up to his ankle in cold Duckham’s bilge. The floor timbers are sponge. Just need drying out. So he tries to conjure up the excitement of his visit to the chandlers in Holborn EC1. The teak binnacle, the potbelly stove. What does chucking the lead into five fathoms mean then? Or is it poets’ nonsense?
The light’s gone. The fish and chips still feel as cold as they’d been when he ate them. He lies still, damp, cold, listening to the slap of cloying water against the fibreglass sheathing of Excalibur’s hull. The flap of loose roofing-felt on the wheelhouse roof. He gets up to kneel over the piss bucket and block the missing portholes with dripping rags and chip paper. He falls asleep counting buoys on burning decks.
They bang him up at 6 a.m., two tugmen, mariners with lanyard fingers, dory-eyed in heavy white arrans. As he slops out they go over Excalibur’s cleats. Not happy. Might have to side tow.
-Are they bolted on? the skipper asks. She goes 12 knots, you know, that’s punchin it darn there but it’s our best chance to get both tides. We wanna get back by three.
-Sun tug is it, yours?
-My grandfather worked the Sun tugs out of Tilbury you know. Chief stoker in the engine room.
-Yeah well ’e wouldn’t be stokin on the bridge would ’e? We going or not?
-Have to wait for Clive, the nautical poet said with the tidal Thames in his blood. Clive’s bringing the money.
-Fair enough skip. We’re anchored off the pier head when you’re ready. Get round under her own steam will she?
-Listen mate, she’s got a lovely engine. Austin Cambridge.
-Hundred and twenny were’n it mate?
-Yeah. Clive’s bringing it in cash.
-See yer round the other side then.
Clive comes at 7 with a kit bag full of tools, an estuary chart, a plastic hiking compass round his neck, a home-made plumb line marked up to thirty fathoms with fancy knots from a book he got in Woolworths.
-Have you got the money?
-I was up till 4 o’clock tying my eyeballs up in those knots for you.
Clive the armchair sailor, head full of dreamboats. The tidal poet Hector says the tugmen aren’t impressed by Excalibur. But they think she’s a pinnace so she might survive 12 knots. What’s a pinnace?
-I hope you didn’t tell them it was a pinnace or make out you didn’t know what one is. She really ought not to go 12 knots. They’ll pull her in half. She’s only a Broads cruiser, fibreglass sheathed.
-It’s 50 miles to Hoo you know, Skipper Hector says.
-That’s over 15 leagues, the 1st mate says.
-That’s 50 nautical miles, like I said.
The engine fires. Clive thinks the water poet could take the wheel safely enough. Clive had saved the Haddock grin under half a beard for years of boatless inertia. He’d drawn a blue anchor on the back of his hand with indelible ink.
-Hard to port number one. Clear that boom, steady as she goes.
-That’s what happened to the Mary Celeste.
-At least the Mary Celeste stayed afloat, Clive says mutinously. Excalibur sank till the end of time. You’d have been better off buying four oil drums and a couple of palettes.
-You’re just jealous.
He’d still been a religious poet when he’d seen the advert in Exchange & Mart. 30ft Broads Cruiser. Needs tidying. 500 quid. He’d have swiped his grandmother’s savings to get away from London. Excalibur had been nudging mud on the River Stort in sight of an artificial ski slope. Vandalised, a floating skip, red and blue daubs. The vendor said he was a teacher. He turned up on a motorbike he’d converted into a 3 x 3. There were God Is For Real stickers on it. Excalibur, he said, was sound as a bell. If the ex-religious poet had been sharp witted he might have said: What, the bell off the Inchcape Rock? The vendor was a man whose wife had thrown him out. He’d done his school marking on Excalibur those cold winter nights. Most of his 3rd years’ biology exercise books were still down one end, pulped. The floorboards weren’t soggy then, when he lived on it. No, all boats leak. He’d leave the bilge pump. Good slop out once a week. This beauty was built from the wreck of Noah’s Ark. Not a penny less than half a grand. He’d throw the lock key and the chemical toilet in for free. Sorry about all the purple turds.
Elephant boat, someone called it on the way down, coughing at 2 knots into the River Lee. The lock keeper at Old Ford said: What’s that, bus or boat? Clive had said it was a pinnace. Someone stole its ropes between locks.
The tugmen, half an hour ago had said: What yer gonna do wiv it?
-Live on it, the sea poet said.
-Because I’m sick of London.
-Yer know what they say…
That sea lock at Limehouse, now he’s a nautical poet, is, he can say from experience, the frontier where salt enters the… the wound… He might improve, enlarge his maxims of quality when he studies charts in his stateroom, but he’s never felt, or even seen, the Thames running in flood. The tug Mirabelle is anchored on the point. The mate sits on a shiny steel bollard watching Excalibur’s skipper ease his craft out from the lock, beckoning him alongside. The flood hits Excalibur on the tail. Like a torpedo in spate. Clive shouts a few of his modest tips.
-To turn with the tide you have to rudder into it.
They start to spin.
-Won’t go round, the nautical poet says. Tide’s too strong.
-Reverse! Clive gives the orders now.
-All hands on deck no 2, throttle cable’s snapped…
Mirabelle is to stern, half a league already. The mate’s yelling off his bollard but they up anchor, shaking their heads as Clive runs from one end of Excalibur to the other with his lasso of blue rope hoping to hove fast on a rusty saviour or one of the derelict piers which shoot past.
-Wharf on port, wharf on starboard, coming up fast… gone to port… oh damn…
They spin, the dancing waltzing Excalibur chased by a tug who circles like a steel hippo, blocking the wharf side with clanking chains on alert. When Excalibur’s recaptured, Mirabelle’s mate says:
-We’ll have to punch it, we’re aground here.
Clive knows the ropes. He makes fast, side lashes against old tyres, while the nautical poet pretends to check the seams. Mirabelle radios in, revs up, drags Excalibur out into the stream. The wake smacks her ribs. Clive rips up the floorboards in the forward cabin and comes up yelling into Mirabelle’s wheelhouse.
The mate says: All boats leak. We’ll put you out behind us at the barrier.
The whale pump jams. The bilge pump gurgles backwards.
-Have to use the bucket, Clive says.
-It’s full of my turds…
-Too late, Clive says. Excalibur takes the decorations well as Clive dumps overboard.
-Should’ve done it earlier…
-Do you think we’re making fools of ourselves?
-You’re supposed to know about boats. What do you think?
-You’ve read Conrad…
-You owned a boat once Clive. You’re the boat man.
-Yes, but, look what happened to it.
-I used to sit in a café and gaze on it through the window while the waves tossed it against the harbour wall. It was so beautiful from there. They towed it out to sea one night and sunk it. The harbour authorities said it was a… well, a danger to itself was how they put it.
Mirabelle’s shouting across: We’ll put you out behind now. It’ll keep her head up and she’ll take in less water.
They pass the Cutty Sark.
-Boat owning’s always like this, Clive says.
The river poet steps on a cross stringer while dragging the battery out the engine to the pump. The stringer snaps clean in two.
-Sea water’ll do it good, Clive says. Stops the rot.
Excalibur slops and pitches. The wheel spins uselessly. The slap of water on the fibreglass shell has no timbre, only the dull thud of dead-before-it-hit-the-water. The nautical poet, bailing on his knees, begins to saliva.
-Oh dear, Clive says. POLICE. Get up here with that registration plate. It’s the Thames Bill.
They come out from a lay-by, an eddy, a hidden mooring, blue light flashing, PC Hornblower on the megaphone. The Mirabelle slows, Excalibur drifts towards it and the mate pushes it off like he’s going to cut the rope, like Excalibur’s some flotsam just got tangled in their propeller. The Police boat comes alongside. The Mirabelle’s skipper just thumbs back at Excalibur.
-Mine, Hector says.
-Where’s yer license plate?
-Where yer going?
-I said where yer going?
-Hoo. We’re going to Hoo on the Medway.
-I know where Hoo is. Where’ve you come from?
-Oh right, Captain Pugwash is it? Just get this thing out the water for good, Pugwash. That’s my advice.
The Police boat rears up and turns, sending a shower over Excalibur’s crew.
-Cods, Pugwash says.
The slap continues, the pitching’s worse.
-No ballast, Clive says. I’m afraid it’s Sutton Hoo for us.
The wake of passing tugs makes her rear up badly. Two Dutch frigates steam towards them, two pilots dropping off at the Thames Barrier. Ratings line up and jeer. A green arrow points them through and they’re at sea. The mist deadens outlines, visibility is silt, even the sky is brown. Doubled up in the bilges with his finger in the pump, clearing out the screws and flex fasteners, his trouser knees soaking up the oil, water, petrol, crusts of wooden boat lifting off like it’s a pie dish, the estuary Hector is wondering how much he’ll get for Excalibur if he tells the Mirabelle to forget it and turn back, when some photographs float up from the soggy biology books. Excalibur on its side in six feet of water on the River Stort. The date on the photos January 86. Three months before he bought it.
-We’re in, Clive says. We’ve made both tides and we’re running late.
-Where are we?
The dank cold clack of a new yellow sea like egg yolk in dishwater, and the land of mud and suck, its possessions tidied up and sprinting by, splinters and sofas and oil drums and rafts of plastic, road signs and drowning clothes and dead sheep.
Hoo’s just a hole in that mud on the north bank opposite Rochester. A shoreline for rotten hulks and fallen jetties, boatyards full of bo’suns with their whistles missing like the one Clive’s fixed up for Excalibur, one of his real-boat pirates from the 60s.
A league off Hoo in the Sound and the Mirabelle reverses screw in the middle of the shipping lane and comes alongside.
-Can’t risk it skip. We’ll miss the tide the other end again and it’ll be double yer money and all of us stuck. Curtains. We’re off. Can’t raise yer boatyard on the radio so we’ll ’ave to find a phone box on the way, right? ’E’ll come out an get yer. Just hang on. Got that cash mate?
The drunken boat, moored to a buoy in the shipping lane. These are big wake-up ships, super-tankers and container tramps, making mountainous swell for the ark to wreck on. Lights from the boatyard soaked up by the dark as foghorns bray like lost donkeys. Hector’s asking, in lifeboat prose now, where the Mirabelle will find a phone box they can anchor a tug at? Clive’s lighting matches so the ships won’t run them down.