Stories from my Travels #4 “Somebody’s Father”

“It’s Donald Trump,” he says with a frown.

I’m sitting on the cockpit of a canal barge with Dennis Wainwright, a sixty-five-year-old boater who’s been kind enough to offer me a cup of tea to quench my thirst.  The weather has been hot and I’ve travelled east to Skipton.  He’s a wiry old fella wearing a boiler suit and beret, around his neck is a worn spotted kerchief and he smells of pipe tobacco.

“What say you?” he asks.

“More like Boris,” I opine.

“Could be anybody,” he ponders, spitting the last swig of his brew into the cut and wiping out his mug, “I’ll decide when he’s finished.”

After a lengthy pause as he regards the scarecrow he’s in the midst of manufacturing from clothes and driftwood he finds, he tells me he’s seen me walking up and down while he’s been moored these past forty-eight hours and wonders if I’m homeless.  I tell him in a sense I am a kind of driftwood, that I’m travelling the country in search of stories.  For a moment he’s wary, then relaxes and confides that he could tell me some to make my hair stand on end.

“A bit like Boris’s,” I muse, rolling a cigarette.

“I favour Trump,” he says, “I mean the scarecrow not the man because he’s a complete dickhead.”

“And Boris?” I ask.

“Fair point.  They’ve all got shit for brains.”

I find the man interesting and tell him so, and tell him also that I’d like to know why he chose this kind of life if he didn’t mind my asking.  I’m surprised and pleased when he says he doesn’t mind at all, and begins his story.

“I were born in Boslem, Stoke on Trent,” he says, “nowt to write home about, just a normal family, mam, dad and three brothers.  Dad worked down pit in Silverdale but me older brothers worked in the potbank, so when I left school I decided that were for me an’ all.  Started as a fettler and worked me way up, become a modeller, bloody good an’ all, which is how I know how to make these plant pots, and model the heads for me scarecrows.”

I note the rows of brightly-painted pots on the cabin roof and nod approvingly.

“I met this lass at Wedgewood, Alice, and finished up marryin’ her, two kids, the second one stillborn.  We were married thirty year.”

“And why did it end?” I want to know.

“Couldn’t keep me dick in me trousers, not that I’m proud of it,” he says proudly, “our lass is grown up now of course. Reckon she’ll be turned forty by now.”

“You don’t keep in touch?”

“Last I heard she were in Sweden, married with a family of her own.  No we dunner keep in touch.”

“What about your ex-wife?”

“God knows what happened to her.  Probably married again herself for all I know.  I mean I don’t wish either of ‘em no malice, I just hope they’re happy.”

It strikes me as sad that he’s lost touch, especially with his daughter, and that he’s so matter-of-fact about it, but ponder that these are only the bullet points of his story and there is much more between them.

“So why did you end up living on a barge?” I ask.

“Choice,” he says, emphatically.  “When me and mar lady split we sold the house and with my half I bought this boat.  Packed up me job, sold me car and been on the cut ever since.”

“Selling plant pots to put food on the table.”

“Selling owt I can.  Plant pots, ornaments, scarecrows.”

“I didn’t imagine there’d be much call for scarecrows,” I say, hoping that doesn’t sound disparaging.

“There inner,” he says with a rueful grin and lights his pipe, “but believe it or not this one’s actually a commission, from farmer over that field.  Two hundred quid he said he’d give.”

I confess I have my doubts as to whether that’s true but keep my counsel.  Instead I explain that I’m living off-grid too, but it’s really a project and I don’t expect to be doing so for the rest of my life.

“Can’t see me going back on-grid,” he says, “Like me own company too much.  I like going where I want go, not where somebody tells me, I like doing what I want do, not what somebody tells me.”

I have some sympathy with this and say so, and add that I sometimes wonder why more of us don’t do the same.

“To me this is natural,” he says, “we’re grazers, hunters, living off the land.  We wanner meant for mortgages, insurance policies, spending every day in t’ same place alongside folk we don’t even like and have nowt in common with except the need for a wage come end of week.  It’s like Tarzan said, “It’s a jungle out there,” and I say “Get me out of here!”

“You do watch telly then?” I say, picking up on his cultural reference.

“Not much.  Because even that tells you what do, tells you what think.  And as for them politicians…”

“What about them?”

“Couldn’t organise a pissup in a brewery.”

“I take it you mean Brexit.”

“Deal no deal, in, out, load of old cobblers.  Makes no odds to me because I’ve been out for years.”  And with that he hawks and cobs fiercely onto the towpath, where it lands and shines like an onyx brooch. He then rummages in one of his many old carrier bags on the cockpit and fishes out a pair of trainers.

“Too good for a scarecrow,” he says, looking down at the Reeboks, “I’d wear ‘em mesen if they hadn’t come from a dead man.”

“A dead man?”

He tails off and looks through his pipe smoke into the distance for some moments, before saying “In some woods near Calverley Bridge. I were heading for Shipley, meandering, having a smoke, and something catches me eye, a flash o’ colour like.  So I grind to a halt, get off and see him there, hanging, a note to his daughter pinned to the trunk beneath him.  Had enough.  Gone.”

“Somebody’s father,” I say.

“I called for help but of course it were too late.”

“So sad,” I say.

“Anyway I’ll have to get on,” he says, after further embellishment and another lengthy pause.

Thanking Dennis for the cup of tea, I leave him to his work and set off down the towpath whence I came.  And as I walk I ponder his story and its pathological elaboration of a neck broken, a brain starved of oxygen and a heart of a man no longer wanting life no longer beating.  I reflect on how the conversation had turned sinister as I questioned his taking of the man’s shoes, which he’d justified in that he no longer needed them, and he hadn’t done it lightly – it came down to whose needs were greater.  Life’s hard, he’d said, unbearably so.

Next day, when I leave my van to take my four-mile constitutional, I see the boat is gone.  It seems the only sign that Dennis was here is the charred grass verge where he’d barbecued his supper, and the brooch now hardened on the path beyond.  But as I walk on for some two miles and pause to roll, something catches my eye… and there is a man of driftwood, arms outstretched as if to ask for help, Reeboks shining white in the afternoon sun.  And who is the man I wonder?  Is he Trump or is he Boris?  Is he really driftwood?  He is somebody’s father.

From a novella in progress.

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