The Narrow Boat by Lydia Penn

Painting: Oil on Canvas by Margaret Cooper.

It was Duncan who introduced them to narrow boats. He and Maurice had grown up together, been to university together, but had since lost touch. Now more than ten years later, at his cousin’s wedding reception, Maurice caught sight of a familiar face across the room.

Duncan looked the same – and yet he didn’t. Even at a distance, and allowing for the years, Maurice could see something different about him. Duncan had always been a pasty faced unhealthy looking individual. Now he looked radiant, bursting with health and vitality.

He saw Maurice too and immediately walked towards him with a broad smile and a very attractive blonde on his arm. “My wife Heather,” he said, and Maurice introduced Denise, his Australian wife.

Introductions over, Maurice couldn’t resist adding,” you look so well, Duncan, and so relaxed. “What’s your secret?”

Looking at Maurice’s careworn face, and sensing the tension in him, Duncan smiled again “narrow boats,” he answered, and waited for Maurice to show the usual reaction. He was not disappointed!

Maurice was mystified. “Narrow Boats – what on earth – ?”

“Narrow boats are barge-like boats used for travelling along canals,” explained Duncan. “We got one about five years ago, and it has completely changed our lifestyle. I’ve never felt better.”

“Canals,” Denise joined in. “We lived for a few years on a canal estate just south of Brisbane. We had a “dry block”, but the people across the road backed on to the canal and had a boat. But it certainly was not narrow. It was actually quite a large boat, and so were several of the others.”

Heather explained. “These boats have to be narrow as they are designed to travel along the narrow canals in the UK. Just as the old barges used to. People have them for holidays and even live permanently on then. It’s become a very popular way of life.

“It’s such a relaxing lifestyle. We spend as much time on the boat as we can, and the kids love it,” added Duncan.

“There can’t be much room on them,” commented Denise. “Isn’t it rather cramped? I’m used to big wide open spaces with lots of room to move around. It sounds to me rather – well, narrow!”

“Granted, it’s narrow,” said Duncan, “but it’s certainly not confining. It’s a wonderful way to see the countryside and things like bird life in their natural habitat.”

They talked a little longer, and before they parted Maurice and Denise had agreed to go and look at the narrow boat the following Saturday – at least Maurice had!

“They certainly are keen,” he commented as they prepared for bed that night.

“Well I’m not,” said Denise firmly. “I wish we hadn’t agreed to go. It all sounds very boring to me. I suppose we’ll have to go now, but don’t expect me to be enthusiastic. What a bore,” she yawned.

The narrow boat was moored in a marina alongside several other similar looking boats, Duncan proudly showed them around while Heather proceeded to make tea. It was a warm sunny afternoon, and everything looked at it’s best. But Denise stared around critically, while Maurice plied Duncan with questions.

Heather put out tea and cakes on a small table and, sensing that Denise was a person who liked plenty of social life and activity, she remarked as she handed round the cake, “you do meet a lot of new people as you go along, and everyone is very friendly.”

Duncan joined in, “it may all look very bewildering at first. But you can get a manual and there are charts and maps to help you navigate where you want to go, and tell you what to see at each place. Other people are very helpful too if you get into difficulties. Also, there are instruction seminars.”

Denise sipped her tea and said nothing, while Maurice continued to ask questions. After a while, Duncan said, “look here, I have an idea, next weekend is a holiday, and we plan to leave the kids with Heather’s mum and take a trip to Stratford on Avon. There are no hassles with traffic on the way, and you can moor right in the centre of everything, so no parking problems either. Why don’t you join us and see for yourselves what life on a narrow boat is like?”

“This table and seats will convert into a bed quite easily,” added Heather, ” and we have all amenities on board. We’d love to have you.”

Maurice clearly was very enthusiastic, but before he could say anything Denise jumped in hastily. ” I’m afraid we can’t, as we’ve promised to take the kids to the beach.”

Maurice said nothing, but it was clear that this was news to him! “Perhaps some other time,” he said awkwardly.

The conversation became more general until Maurice and Denise left with vague promises to “catch up with you again soon.”

But on the way home Denise really exploded. “Such a pokey boat,” she began. “and all those people they say they meet; I suppose they all talk about boats all the time, It is all so boring.”

Maurice remained silent. But as they prepared for the drive to the south coast the next weekend, he insisted that they left early to avoid all the traffic. Unfortunately, everyone else seemed to have the same idea! As they crawled along congested roads, waited at endless traffic lights, and frustration increased, Maurice thought enviously of Duncan and Heather cruising peacefully along, enjoying the countryside. But he kept his thoughts to himself – better not rock this boat, he thought!

He kept in touch with Duncan, and now that the bank had transferred him back to the town where they grew up, and Duncan already worked as a solicitor, they met for lunch from time to time.

At first, they still talked about narrow boats, but while Maurice had not discarded the concept, he said frankly that he would have to shelve the idea while Denise was so opposed.

“I have a high-pressure job,” he said, “and for a while now I’ve been thinking I’d enjoy some peace and tranquillity when I’m not at work. All this social activity is very tiring too. Narrow boats seem really ideal. But what can I do without Denise agreeing to try them.”

They continue to meet, but as time went on it seemed Maurice had given up all thoughts of narrow boating. He no longer asked questions or even seemed interested.

The years passed; both had reached retirement, their children now married and producing grandchildren; they had come to a new stage of life. Duncan still exuded joy and enthusiasm about life.

“I’m opening a store,” he told Maurice, “to sell narrow boating equipment, you know, charts, maps, gear, that sort of thing. And I can help people with any legal problems with insurance, licensing and so forth.”

Maurice gave a weary smile. “Life seems to get more difficult; so much noise, rush everywhere. We have new neighbours and they are so noisy, loud music and car doors banging all hours of the night. There is no peace and quiet anymore – and the roads!”

It was not long after this conversation that Duncan heard Denise had suffered a sudden and fatal heart attack. She had ignored repeated doctor’s warnings to slow down, and still sneered at any suggestion of a quieter life. “Doing What?” She would snap.

Duncan and Heather gave what support and comfort they could to Maurice, who now spent most of his days in a frenzy of activities at clubs and senior citizen centres, and looked pale, worn out and tense.

Narrow boats were mentioned once more. “You can come along with us,” suggested Duncan. “Maybe help me in the store. You were so interested once. The fresh and relaxing lifestyle would make a new man of you.”

Maurice shook his grey head sadly. “It’s too late now to change. I’ve lived this way so long and I am too old now to change my ways.” He smiled wryly. “I guess you could say that I’ve missed the boat.”

He put his head in his hands and his body shook with muffled sobs.


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