It is remarkably difficult to manage a discreet business in modern Britain. Gone are the days of bootlegged whisky, of smothered lanterns and boat keels grinding across beach pebbles. When clandestine activity is not made impossible by CCTV, urban creep, and light pollution it is impinged upon by idiots walking their dogs or morons waving mobile phones. Those of us who wish to avoid attention have had to diversify.
I would never have been able to use these waterways a hundred and fifty years ago. They were to Victorians what motorways are to millennials – arterial highways. Canals would have heaved with coke, coal, and clay. Flat caps would have shielded workers’ eyes from the sun, whilst blinkers kept horses’ attention on the towpath.
Things are different now. By day the likes of Trent and Mersey, Cannock Extension, and Shropshire Union thrum with tourist traffic. They are the playground of the lower middle-class holiday maker, the habitat of the kitsch stag party. By night, though…
Longboats are not permitted to sail after dark. After the last lock key has been taken below and the last mooring rope tightened, the darkening waterway becomes a lure for the lonely, a refuge for the desperate. It is a rare honest soul found walking the towpaths after nightfall. The canal is where society chooses to dispose of those it would rather not see – the addicts, the homeless, the beaten. Their wariness of others is what makes these waterways perfect for my craft. The guttural chunter of my longboat might attract the occasional glance from someone huddled underneath a motorway flyover, but anyone sleeping near the dark, still water knows better than to interfere in the night-time economy.
Admittedly, it lacks the dramatic backdrop of my last place of work – the Staffordshire is not the Styx. Nevertheless, a seat on the back of a narrowboat is undeniably comfier than punting in a ferry all day. My cloak doesn’t get wet at the bottom, I’ve got shelter when the weather turns, and a longboat holds a hell of a lot more souls than my glorified canoe did. My clients perhaps receive less of a personal service than they did in days of old, but it’s not as though there’s a lot of competition in this market.
The sky is beginning to lighten. It is time I moored up before continuing my journey tonight. There is an old poacher on the bank ahead, cold from a night’s illicit fishing. He moves as though to object as I put the engine to idle and draw up next to the bank. Eyes widen as he sees the thin, white hand on the tiller, and he thinks better of the confrontation. The man gathers his fishing gear and walks away along the towpath without looking back – he knows his master.
A wooden groan issues from the hull of the narrowboat as I go below. Time to rest up.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order