“Are you sure you don’t want to come?” Bill asked.
George didn’t reply. He’d been off-colour for about a week and Bill said as much. “You’ve been off-colour for about a week,” he said.
Again George didn’t respond, he just slouched in his chair with only the energy to feel sorry for himself.
“Well I’ll bring something back for that cough old man,” said Bill, and with a heavy heart he shut the door at the stern and jumped down to the towpath, swinging his satchel over his shoulder.
They’d moored at this spot before, many times and always this time of year, and Bill was surprised or not so surprised to see how much it had altered in just twelve months; the fields now clustered with caramac-coloured houses. Swan Drive, he noticed, Mallard Way, Heron Crescent and Otter Close, the unadopted new streets he combed through on his way to town all named after the birds and animals that had been displaced by human beings needing housed. A pity, he thought, but then again don’t most people need a street to live on?
However, Bill and George were not most people; they had lived on a narrowboat for fourteen years, enjoying peace and tranquility in their dotage, living simply and frugally, sometimes off the lands they meandered. Fourteen years of luxurious off-grid life, the window of which looked out on a different garden every single day. Of course it wasn’t possible to live entirely without money so Bill tried to make some small amounts from his paintings and sketches, mostly of birds and animals or the scenery he observed, but sometimes of passers-by or their pets, mostly but not exclusively dogs. If Bill and George had enough food for the two of them and the birds Bill liked to feed wherever they moored, they were quite content with that. On days weather permitting he’d set up his easel on the towpath, hoping to catch the eye of ramblers. George didn’t paint, he’d just sit with a tin in front of him lest anyone was inclined to drop in a coin or two. Yesterday they’d had a good day; Bill had been ‘commissioned’ to compose a cartoon sketch of a group from the Ramblers Association, for which he charged £50. Privately the ramblers were amused at this odd couple, dishevelled and grey as they were, and the clubbed-together commission was more out of pity than of charity, though that was a detail Bill and George were blissfully unaware of.
This had been their life since 2004 when Bill lost his job in the library. At the age of fifty-seven he struggled to adapt to not working and when he’d been unlucky with numerous job applications he became rather depressed. But just as he was at his wits’ end, exacerbated by the fact his severance was quickly being eaten away, he had an epiphany. Something of a loner, he’d often contemplated living off-grid in either a caravan or barge. So the day of his epiphany he did some digging and found a boat for sale in a marina on the Shropshire Union Canal. It was called Bill, and seeing this as a significant livery, Bill paid the asking price of £10,000 ono. With the rest of his money he did the boat up, replaced some of the rotten underboards and painted the hull. On the day of the launch, when he’d closed his bank account, handed the key in to his landlord and binned his mobile phone, he turned his back on that life and headed for a new one.
That was also the day he met George. They immediately hit it off and both knew that after spending increasing amounts of time knocking about together they would ultimately share this new home, and share it they have for fourteen years. Over time the bond between the two was reinforced, never a bad word spoken, never a disagreeable exchange, always the best of friends with the fortitude that only complete trust and gradual love can provide, sharing a bed and welcoming the comfort and warmth from each other’s bodies especially on those chilly nights when the log burner clicked its embers. It was and still is the perfect relationship. Bill had intended to change the livery and add George’s name but never quite got round to it, but anyway it wasn’t an issue and George had never requested it. In George’s eyes the boat belonged to them, it was their home and that was all there was to it. A tacit agreement that they’d rub along like this till either or both popped their clogs.
While most of their life was desultory, unhurried and free, structure was occasionally determined by some sort of event, this week being an example of that, where they’d slowly carved the waters through Shropshire into Cheshire, arriving at the small agricultural town called Nantwich and its Food Festival, a particular draw for the two of them and vital source of sustenance. And so this is why Bill was leaving his sick friend behind to go and buy food and medicine, intending to fork out as little as possible of the £50 in his leather purse.
As he approached the town he could hear the thud of live music and see the many people drawn towards it, dressed flimsily in the afternoon sun. He crossed Waterlode and headed into the car park which had been requisitioned for the festival, a jumbled kaleidoscope of tents, marquees, stalls and touts handing out flyers. Laughing families stood in groups to eat pizza, burgers and ice cream and the sight and smell of all that made Bill feel hungry – he and George hadn’t eaten since breakfast, though George hadn’t managed much at all before sicking it overboard.
Bill knitted his way through the slow-moving throng and headed for Swinemarket which he remembered had a Boots. Along the way he stopped momentarily at various stalls, sampling morsels of cheese, cake and biscuits, intending to fill his belly for free. He thought about George and wondered if he was now hungry – he’d make sure he’d get back to the boat with his satchel full of fruit, veg and meat. Tonight they’d eat well, and if he could get something for George’s cough all the better. They’d even have a glass of beer if he could find some stall selling it cheap. Bill was a connoisseur of real ale, and often thought of brewing his own but this was another thing he never quite got round to.
By the time Bill had filled his gut and his satchel, his boots rubbed and he was tired of drifting along in the slow ebb of foodies. It was hot and he was thirsty, so he opened one of the beers and sat for a while on the grass by St Mary’s Church to enjoy its quenching bitterness while watching the many people saunter by or lounge in the shade of walnut trees, and the children dancing to the music – he would paint this scene tomorrow, he decided, when George would be fit enough to sit with his tin in front of him lest anyone was inclined to drop in a coin or two.
As the bottle was gradually emptied, Bill continued to watch the children and got lost in his thoughts. He thought about the years he worked in the library, seen as the local font of everything knowledge, a misfit, a loner who only spoke when to a reader seeking a copy of something or other, needing direction to some department or other. Once his working day had finished, he’d lock the doors and walk the three miles to his home where he lived alone with his paintings and books. His evenings once he’d cooked and eaten a simple repast were spent reading or listening to the radio. He had never owned a television. He had no family besides a brother somewhere or other, to whom he hadn’t spoken and from whom he hadn’t heard in years. He had no friends and he was happy with that, glad to be alone, inspired by his private view of the world and vivid imagination to paint. That was his life until what that little boy said about him changed everything.
Shuddering out of this reverie, Bill thought about George and began to feel guilty about leaving him alone so long. What if his health had worsened? What if he’d been sick again? What if he’d died? Concerned, Bill slaked the last of his thirst, binned the empty bottle and rejoined the drifting hordes until washed up on Waterlode then Welsh Row, where he headed up the sparser paths towards the canal.
By the time he reached the towpath and saw in the distance their beloved home, Bill’s feet and brow were sweating and blistered and he was glad and relieved to see the wisps of smoke coil from the boat’s chimney. He could hear the low sound of the generator, churning like a nightjar. There was no sign of George, whom he hoped would’ve rested by now and be fit enough for an evening meal; boiled potatoes, cabbage, carrots and a nice piece of steak he’d fetched from the market and which he hoped George could now stomach.
“George,” he called, with a knock on the stern door, “I fetched something for that cough.”
But there was no cough. There was no response at all. Worried, Bill opened the door and ventured down the steps inside. The light was now fading and it was that stage in the evening when if they didn’t have the lights on, the boat could feel rather chilly and unwelcoming, especially when the logs were burning grey and dusty towards their death, like now. He had a bad feeling, a horrible vision of George slouched in his chair, eyes closed having drawn his last breath. There’d be nobody to inform, George had nobody except him, but there’d be a funeral to organise, some sort of fitting send-off and celebration of a long life. But just as Bill was thinking the awful thought of any procedure if his friend were gone, George finally broke the silence and came up to greet him, lick his legs, wag his tail and sniff hungrily at the satchel his friend and master dropped to the floor.