So, back to the boating holiday…
I have mentioned, in passing, the Lock Operatives. Let’s not be coy here. Yes, a big hand, please, for Lindy and myself who, sporting equally stylish gloves (white with blue handgrips for the lovely Lindy and a very chic floral navy with EasyGrip for me), did a marvellous job of
man lady-handling, nay, taming unruly canal-infused ropes with the expertise of snake charmers.
We mastered a hitch-knot in the time it takes to shout ‘Land ahoy!’ and took to the incorrect term ‘capstans’ – for the canal-side bollards – like ducks to water.
Between locks, we lounged on our sunbeds, as I mentioned, with ice chinking in our G&Ts, then as soon as we got the call to tie up, it took but a second to pop on our gloves, and sometimes deck shoes, and take up our positions.
Hugo became adept at leaping on to the bank whenever we needed to moor, and we became adept at throwing a coil to him, one from the front and one from the back of the boat, while he stood ready to catch. And with as much aplomb as we could muster, receiving them again after he’d wound them around the
cap bollards for safe-keeping.
Sometimes, a rope would fall in the dirty, dirty canal first and we’d have to fish it out, hand over hand, our gloves getting more and more saturated with eau de Midi.
Sometimes, he’d hit the jackpot and get it on board in one fell swoop.
And sometimes he’d hit us with its flaccid, wet tail.
In the face.
At Fonserannes is a magnificent lock spectacle. ‘Martin’ on Trip Advisor says:
‘It shouldn’t be but is always interesting to watch the boats rising and descending the seven locks of the Canal de Midi outside Beziers. Part of the fascination is awe at the incredible engineering feat which was put together by Paul Ricquet over two hundred years…‘
Thank you, Martin.
The Fonserannes Locks are a flight of staircase locks, originally nine, but now seven in a row. That day – I remember it well – I was wearing my skimpy orange and white striped bikini (the one I have cleverly disguised in the photo coming up shortly). I had no idea how much of a draw to tourists these locks were.
Or how much of a spectacle I’d be.
As we sailed into the first of seven, I took my place at the front of the boat as Hugo jumped off and I expertly tossed him the coil of rope. All I had to do now was wait until we had dropped into the next lock and pull it back in again…
Most of the lock-keepers who operated the mechanisms were women. This lock was no different. Much to my dismay, I saw her pointing at me and shouting, ‘Deux personnes!’
Mais, non. It had only ever required one man to get off, that one man being Hugo.
She was gesturing wildly at me to get off as well. I had no time to cover up. No time to fear the gap to be leapt.
To my utter embarrassment, I vaulted into the public arena in nothing but a bikini and a pair of floral gardening gloves and then had to walk the boat like a tethered donkey through all of seven locks which took about an hour. Every member of the crowd lining the banks, I might add, was dressed in the full repertoire of outdoor clothing. Some even wore coats. And hats!
How tourists love to take photos of the Fonserannes Locks.
I’ll sue, you know!
This is me in action when I was allowed to stay on board at a different lock (and, yes, I have painted in an orange dress to spare my blushes).
Parking Mooring was difficult at first. As Mike thrusted at the helm (come on, it’s a technical term), Hugo jumped from end to end like a gazelle, checking on angles and distances and letting everyone in hearing distance know what they were and how much more to ‘THRUST, MIKE! THRUST!’ Oftentimes, we feared for his welfare as he teetered and grabbed at handrails as the boat bumped the bank.
And then the day came which we had all dreaded. From his screams, we knew that either he had been doubly amputated in his prime, or was about to become as thin as he would ever be as he was surely crushed against another vessel.
I leapt from my sunbed (after carefully popping my pina colada into the drinks holder) and rushed down the stairs to the deck from where the blood-curdling screams emanated.
Would I be able to lift him back on board (the wet cushion had been a handful)?
Should I don my gloves (dirty canal water)?
Should we just bid adieu to Hugo as fondly as we had to the cap and book (see Part One)?
We found him on his back on the rear sun deck wearing the metal gang plank. He had slipped on the stairs and had rudely been assaulted by this menacing piece of equipment (obviously in cahoots with the wind – see Part One, again.)
All was well as we moored in a pretty village for a waterside evening meal under a fairylit canopy as the sun set. A disturbance in the water promised a wonderful wildlife encounter to top off the evening. Indeed, a large animal stuck out its head and made its way to the bank. An otter!
I grabbed a few chunks of bread from our table and wandered over to join the gathering crowd, only to be met by a pair of slitty eyes (which I imagined to be glowing red) in a sharply-pointed face and waving a very long tail, Indiana Jones-style. This was no otter! It was an enormous, rotund water rat that had obviously had a fair amount of bread in its time and could probably have made off with a five-year old, should the mood have taken him.
I ate the bread myself and ran.
Our boat, too, came with a smart blue canopy to give shade on the fun deck. There was nothing nicer of an evening than parking up and having an al fresco feast. We had already encountered a forest fire as seen from afar and had watched countless water planes to-ing and fro-ing to douse it, the blue sky billowing with grey above us. Little did we expect to see another fire much closer to home.
The sun had almost set as we had moored up for the night. We had taken our places under our canopy on our tied-up, bottle-weighted cushions and were just waiting for Hugo to return to the boat (he always liked to explore the vicinity of each bank) when he came running. There was a building on fire. Within minutes, we could see orange and we were engulfed in smoke. Large embers began to to rain on our canopy. We had no choice but to move. With military speed, we dissembled the canopy as it’s forbidden to drive with it up and pulled away in the dark… it was also forbidden to sail in the dark, but we had no choice. We could hear the sirens for a long time from much further down the canal.
It had been an awful night for someone.
In the time allowed, by the end of our holiday we had taken our boat as far down the canal as it was humanly possible, and on our final day, we had no choice but to take it back to base.
That was the day that the heavens opened.
Every cushion was wet through, and so were we. Cap’n Hugo was at the wheel and I was First Mate. With the strings pulled tight on the hood of my raincoat, and wearing a pair of trousers that I had fashioned from a bin bag, I co-piloted our vessel to the safety of the harbour. (OK – made a few comments about our position coming up to bridges)
Our holiday was at its end. We’d cleaned the boat, eaten every scrap of food and were going to spend the last night letting the restaurant back at base do all the cooking for us. When we bowled up at the door, the lights were off and a small crowd of crestfallen would-be sailors were clutching their empty bellies.
They’d had a power cut. There was no food. Not even salad.
We went to bed hungry – but at least it meant we could still fit through our bedroom door.
Do you remember Claudette, the taxi driver (whose name I have changed) that had dropped us off? When she’d left us, we asked her to return on our leaving day at 7 am.
‘Non,’ she said. ‘I will come at eight.’
‘Seven,’ we said.
‘Eight,’ said ‘Claudette’.
We were ready well before eight and sat in the drizzle thinking about breakfast at the airport.
‘Claudette’ was late. Very late.
We rang her. She was bailing out her brother, she told us. He was also a taxi driver and he had had to wait for his first passenger to wake up, which had messed up all his pickups.
When she finally arrived, she was cross with us and there was not an apology in sight. Why were we panicking? Panic, panic, panic! Why are the British so stressed? Always so stressed. Always. Of course we would have plenty of time at the airport for one coffee, two coffees, three coffees… Stop panicking.
With a lack of food in our bellies, we chomped gum while ‘Claudette’ drove, told us off, took phone calls and wrote on a pad of paper, flicking through it to check her notes as she let the wheel do its thing.
It was a matter of survival – the gum and the car journey.
‘Claudette’ tutted. ‘You are chewing gum? Why? It is the morning. You do not chew gum in the morning.’ We were in her bad books all the way to the airport. To avoid being slapped again, we let her get out our cases from the car and didn’t touch her doors to show that we DO listen… and were also quite afraid of her. We had no time for three coffees, or two, or one. She had dropped us off in the nick of time.
But, oh, what fun we had! Bon voyage indeed.
And a final plug for my short story collection,