A Tale of Power

Power can be wonderful thing.


It’s true that those in possession of too much power – the local council for instance, tend to wield it randomly in flagrant abuse, bending and shaping their environment and those in it to suit their own desires.


But there’s another kind of power. The sort that is stored in the rather charmingly named leisure batteries, in lorry, caravan or boat. This is the kind that boat dwellers spend a lot of time thinking about, conserving and obtaining - from sun, wind and generator.


We love having lots of it and when, for some reason, our stores of it are depleted, we may feel anxious and vulnerable. Cross, even. Waking up in the morning and finding there isn’t even enough power to flush the loo can leave us feeling decidedly out of sorts. And putting on the (noisy) generator for an hour, only to find that an hour after that, the numbers on the batteries have once again plummeted, meaning that most of the cherished charge has disappeared, is enough to make any boat dweller weep. As I did, when it happened to me. Repeatedly.


Bob would have known, of course, that one of my five batteries had gone bad. It had become old and weak and useless. He would have instantly realised that, instead of simply dying, it clung frantically to life, leeching sustenance from its brother batteries, draining them, so that they too became incapable of doing their job properly.


Helpless to prevent this pillage of their life force, all the healthy batteries could only watch helplessly as each amp of power they received was greedily sucked up by their poorly sibling.


When, eventually, the problem was diagnosed by someone better versed in batteries than I, the remedy was swift and brutal, although clean in its immediacy and effectiveness. The bad battery was disconnected and hefted away to die in a special battery graveyard. A shiny new one was installed in its place. I could almost hear the others sighing in relief as they acknowledged the arrival of one who would contribute equally, allowing them to charge and work at full capacity.


My life has been transformed. I have power and I intend to use it well.


To celebrate, I tidy up the engine room and sort out Bob’s toolbox. The one I grabbed and filled with various bits and pieces before I left his workshop for the last time.


Now it is finally organised and tidy. I have even oiled the saw that he took such great care of.


He would approve, I think.

Pain and Perspective

Being away from something almost always brings perspective.


It's a chance to stand back. To see things through a long lens.


I am enjoying, enormously, endless hot water and the loo which can be flushed repeatedly and down which you can put loo paper – even the nice quilted variety, without fear of any hideous blockage situation.


My room is warm and bright, with a wonderful view over the beach. It’s a posher version of the one Bob and I used to run away to occasionally, in a pub overlooking the sea in North Devon.


I can’t resist remembering and reminiscing those seemingly stolen single nights, drinking, eating, talking, loving the warmth, watching the waves from our bedroom window, enjoying each other.


And I am relishing the chance to picture my boat from afar, with an objective eye, noticing its good and bad points. Good points: sound hull, (possibly the most important aspect of living on a boat) bright, colourful and accordingly difficult to be sad in, easy to clean, cheap to run, lots of outside deck space, proximity to water, brilliant view, great community. Bad points: small leaks in roof, not enough water, no hot water, not enough power, need for constant maintenance.


The list somehow spurs me on to make the most of these few days. To rise early and start the editing process, powering on until the waves opposite my window become too tempting – around early afternoon – and then donning wetsuit and taking my body board down to beach for a frolic in the surf. Returning, chilled to the bone, for a hot bath is pure delight and it takes every ounce of self discipline I possess, to recommence the editing process for another couple of hours or so, before going down to the wooden floored bar for a pint or two and some pub food.


There’s a lot of me in this writing project. And that sometimes makes it hard. I find myself dancing around the more difficult paragraphs, the ones that are close to me and mine. I am reluctant, sometimes, to dive in and tackle the subjects that hurt. To write about stuff that makes me cry.


I decide that this probably means it’s good. And I make the leap. And although it’s painful, in the end it feels good. Cathartic, almost. People often say it’s a process. But a process won’t just happen. You have to get it started, help it along, propel it forwards. Just fuckin’ do it.


Glancing at my boat list, I note once again, with pleasure, that the good far outweighs the bad. Something I always suspected.


And that the bad is fixable.

Chasms and cold water

Every now and again the chasm of pointlessness exerts its suction like pull.


One sure fire remedy for avoiding it is to have children and/or a partner living under the same roof as you and/or gainful employment. The chances are that if you have some or all of these, you will dance nimble footed away from the chasm, probably not even noticing that you were anywhere near.


Being called ‘a lady of leisure’ (always by people who don’t know anything about me) tends to nudge me a little closer to the chasm’s edge, where I sometimes teeter for a while, brow furrowed with the effort of digging in my heels, willing myself not to succumb.


Last time this happened, I thought about it, wept my way into a pool of self pity, drank some wine and discussed the subject to the point of tedium, with a patient friend.


Now I am a little wiser. And less fragile.


Of course the why are we here subject is endlessly debatable. But with a bit of effort and a touch of mindfulness, I’ve found it’s possible to deflect, if not actually answer the question.


One deflection tactic is to use the two words that actress Helen Mirren says she would have advised her younger self to use more, (especially, I’m guessing, in situations where male interviewers ignored her acting talent in favour of remarking on her shape.) I find that directing these two words either at those who comment on my lifestyle, or at myself, to be surprisingly effective.


Another is to go and jump in the sea. Preferably one with waves. Because cold lively water is extraordinarily effective at bringing about the realisation that as long as you can do this, no other point is necessary.


And by the time you’ve gone home, tingling and exhilarated and lit the fire and done a few boat chores and switched on all the fairy lights, the only thing that seems pointless is all this self absorption.

Giving up and Going on.

Someone wiser than I am once said, ‘There’s no shame in admitting that you can’t go on.’ And I agree. Wholeheartedly. We all need to rest sometimes.


The confusion arises when you’re staring at what seems like a mammoth project and battling the feeling that – to be brutally frank – you’re just not up to the job. Then, it seems to me, you sometimes have to find a way to battle through the desire to give up/sleep/run away/drink copious amounts of alcohol/cry.


If Bob was still here (and I bloody wish he was), I know what he’d say. ‘Just fuckin’ do it.’ He’d always listen to my various panics and insecurities and declamations of inadequacy. And then he’d hug me and say ‘Just fuckin’ do it.’


Sometimes I felt irritated by this. I thought that he could have been more sympathetic. More empathetic.


But Bob was a practical person. He knew that ultimately, however much you talk and listen, in the end, if you want to achieve something, you have to actually do. Something I’ve often thought about in the last couple of years or so, during the grieving process and when I was selling a house and business and dealing with the practicalities involved in buying and living on a boat.


If I were tramping through snowy woods on a 100 mile hike, I’d feel justified in occasionally admitting that I was exhausted. And clearly at this point, popping up the bivouac, lighting a fire, reconstituting a dried meal and snuggling into a sleeping bag for a few hours kip, would be a smart move.


It seems clear to me however, that the task of turning a 110,000 word manuscript into something readable with a plot free of human sized holes, requires a different approach. Something along the lines of ‘just fuckin’ do it.’


It feels like it would be easy if  he were still here. But when I think about it logically, I know that’s not true. The only difference would be that every time I wept and despaired and groaned, he’d laugh and hug me and bring me a glass of wine or a milky coffee or mug of tea with honey. Or a plate of the bite sized marmite cheese and tomato toasties he was so good at. Breakfast canapés.


I no longer have my support system for the gargantuan task ahead.


So as a second best, I’ve booked five nights in a lovely hotel with a bath and a sea view.

Home and Away

December 27th


The nagging desire to be useful and/or to do something I consider to be meaningful every day, leads me to spend a small proportion of the festivities volunteering at a shelter for the homeless.


Bristol is a big city. I love it for its diversity, music, food and life. But I admit, (only to myself), that I am a tiny bit scared of it. The shelter is ten times the size I am used to, and the induction talk for the volunteers is long and full of dire warnings, although kindly delivered.


Predictably, however, none of the more scary possibilities come to pass, and I spend most of my four hour shift sorting out clothes from the store upstairs, for guests who often have wet cold feet and dry skin.


One very slim girl finishes her turkey curry in record time and asks me if she can have some boots and some face cream. She says that she would like some  ‘you know, really nice boots.’ Her Eastern European accent somehow intensifies her vulnerability, and I search and scrabble through the stores with increased focus. But I can only come up with a pair that are a size too large, and some body lotion. I think wistfully of the half jar of Nivea I binned a couple of days ago.


The  guest declines the boots. ‘They are too big, darlink,’ she exclaims regretfully, and demonstrates how her feet slide around in them. I imagine how this combined with damp feet could lead to savage foot problems, and I agree, feeling sad as I watch her sliding her feet back into her battered trainers. But she seizes the body lotion and immediately slathers it over her face and neck.


I get back to the house tired, but in a sort of satisfied doing-good glow. My offspring and I discuss the homeless of Bristol and other subjects over a long lunch of leftovers and wine. We play Shithead, that well known after dinner card game. And we talk about Bob and Nicki and smile and laugh and I remember – just in time – to stop drinking wine before the laughter becomes teary.Not that it would matter much, really, but I sometimes feel that I am tired of tears.


I plan my afternoon in this cosy house that doesn’t move and in which the loo happily flushes at will and there is an endless supply of electricity and hot and cold water. A walk, I think, followed by a film watched on a large screen and then – oh heaven – a bath.


Pushing aside Calm and daily encouragement to be in the moment, I picture my return to the boat, the familiar feeling of heaviness wrapping itself around me like crumpled Christmas paper.


I remind myself that this time I will arrive in daylight. Much better. This time my new gangway waits to usher me solidly on board. I visualise myself sliding open the heavy door and whisking inside, lighting fires and unpacking. Settling back in. I imagine myself waving at my neighbours and popping over for a glass of wine and to discuss our new year boat festivities. I deliberately recall how, each time I enter it, my boat surrounds me in a colourful embrace. How its cosiness envelops me. Or envelopes me, as my daughter used to say when she was little.


Satisfied with my mini self counselling session, I return to the here and now, anchoring myself firmly in the present moment. (Tamara, you would be proud.)


Once again I am nourished by the love and support of my family.


Once again, I know that all is well.

On the edge

Very carefully, I pick my way along the ledge outside my boat. It is nearly dark and I am holding a small torch in one hand. The other hand reaches up, clinging to the railings above me on the top deck.


At the very back of the boat is my goal. The filler pipe for rainwater collection. I have just remembered that it is still in place and I’m worried that it will overfill the tanks in the night and flood the engine room. I need to take it out. Rain makes the ledge slippery, and I waver for a second, but then I remind myself that I am brave and strong.


I tense my core muscles and channel the annoyance I felt earlier when I was refused entry to a fitness class because I wasn’t wearing trainers. I don’t own any trainers. I don’t like them. Their sweaty squishiness repulses me.


The class involved varying sizes of kettle shaped objects – and, unless I was much mistaken, the young girl leading it took some satisfaction in denying me entry. I didn’t much care. I really only wanted a shower, and since it seems somehow churlish not to use the leisure centre facilities first and the pool was closed, on this occasion a class was my route to cleanliness.


But the way she kept repeating the words ‘health and safety,’ irritated me intensely. For at least two minutes, she and I engaged in the kind of pointless and tedious discussion that Bob and I used to dissect and laugh about.


When I gave up and left, a few of the women threw me sympathetic glances and one or two looked positively envious. But the large man standing behind me, who had asked me to move ‘in case I hit you,’ looked relieved.


Tensing all my muscles as if I am lifting the kettle objects, I reach my target. Still holding on tightly, I put the torch in my mouth and reach down to yank the broad pipe out of its hole. It dangles, dripping crossly, and I stick my tongue out at it.


Revenge is swift. As I turn, complacent in the feeling of a job accomplished, the pipe’s corrugated skin scrapes against the side of the boat, snarling and making me jump – and slip. With a yell of fright, I manage to save myself and watch as the torch plummets from my open mouth into the muddy depths between boat and land.


For a few seconds, I stand in the dark, on the ledge, like an indecisive suicide. My heart is beating very fast and tiny prickles of sweat blossom at the nape of my neck. The purr of my neighbour’s generator drowns out any sound I have made. And although I am not in space, the words, ‘No-one can hear you scream,’ leap into my psyche.


Very very carefully, I edge my way back, jumping down onto the lower deck with a gasp of relief. I fling myself inside the boat, feeling warmth and light wrap itself around me. ‘Thank fuck for that,’ I say loudly.


I start to laugh rather hysterically, and immediately repair to my neighbour’s boat for a debrief, where she and I agree that my filler pipe system needs an urgent overhaul. Her husband wonders  why I didn’t ask one of their delightful boys to do the job. I say that I would have worried that he might fall. He smiles.


‘But we have three more,’ he says. 

Passing waves

The shrieking wind jostles the incoming tide into waves which cross each other and seem to vie for space as they make their way towards my boat. It’s not a particularly high tide, but the boat flinches as small sections of water bombard it, surrounding it, thumping against its steel hull, so that it feels and sounds as if someone is hurling rocks at it.


I sit on my cushion, in my contemplation corner, trying to do as the soft voiced lady bids me and focus on the breath. But it’s difficult, when the noise and sensations of the water are so close and seem so aggressive. Reassured by the soft voice telling me it’s completely normal and fine to be distracted by – anything, really, I obediently bring my attention back to the breath, over and over again. But I feel guilty relief when the session ends and I am free to get up and peer outside, not really knowing what I am expecting to see, or what I am looking for.


Twelve hours ago, the weather and water were enacting the same scenario. But then there were other women here. There was companionship and warmth and food. And Prosecco. The howling wind and aggressive water were on the periphery and, with friends and laughter around me, I was unfazed. But today the angry waves seem to be gnawing at my boat, trying to get in.


I make a large mug of coffee and hoist myself onto a high stool, leaning my elbows on the kitchen worktop, narrowing my eyes, peering out at the wide river, trying to stare down its broiling greyness. It is almost like being at sea and I turn to remind myself that a few feet behind me, there is land. A bloody good thing too, since my boat has no working engines and no steering system.


I glance at my to-do list as I drink my coffee, wondering when high tide is. But even as I reach for the booklet that will tell me, I see that it has already turned. The grasping waves are slipping back towards the centre of the river. I feel strangely reprieved.


I take my laptop out to a lovely cafe in town. Cheerfully bohemian in its mismatching glory, there is a ‘dogs welcome’ sign on the door. And sure enough, a charming and smiley Labrador welcomes me in.


I sit on a high backed settle, at a wooden table and open my laptop. I ask for a marmite and salad sandwich with mayonnaise, on granary bread, cut into four and a large cappuccino. My request is accepted without comment and delivered with a smile. My cappuccino arrives sprinkled with gold dust, which makes me smile. I ask if this is a Christmas thing and am told that it’s a year round thing. I approve heartily.


It takes me an hour to write 200 words and eat my sandwich. ‘I can tell you enjoyed that,’ remarks the waitress as she clears. I am grateful that she doesn’t ask what I am working on. Or if I am ‘all ready for Christmas.’ My two stock replies to the latter are stored, just inside my cheek, ready to slide out of my mouth. ‘I was born ready,’ and ‘What do I need to do?’ I usually choose one or the other at random, although neither are particularly funny, I know. But it’s either that or shrug dumbly, which sometimes makes people think I’m unwell, or worse still, about to cry.


As I walk home, I check through what I have achieved today. This is a habit of mine. A way of justifying my existence. And I remember the softly spoken words from my mindfulness session that morning.


All things pass.

Safe but not necessarily sound.

When, I wonder, did safety become so important?


Is it an age thing?


On reflection, I’d say it’s more of a bereavement thing. Something to do with the sudden disappearance of the person who, for most of your adult life, has always had your back.


And so it is that the latest happiness in my life is my new gangway. Unlike the old wobbly one, which made you feel as if you were taking your life in your hands every time you crossed its precariously creaking boards, the new one is solid and strong. Double the length of its predecessor, it easily straddles the gap, stretching several reassuring feet onto the bank, scorning the possibility of any slippage into the muddy depths between land and boat.


I walk back and forth along it. Used as I am to the steep and slippery slope of my old gangway, I marvel at this gentle angle. It’s almost like walking on solid ground. I enjoy the lack of movement, the thickness of the rails under my hands. The feeling of safety.


My new gangway provides a welcome greeting on my return from a visit to relatives. The nourishing warmth of spending time with family and being able to speak freely about loved ones lost, contrasts strongly with the boat life waiting for me. As I leave for home, I feel anxious. I dread coming back to the boat in the dark – and the rickety access that awaits me. After several days in a house full of people and laughter, a house that doesn’t move, I begin to wonder if boat life really is for me.


But – oh joy – work has been done in my absence. The first part of my arrival onto the boat is no longer a heart in mouth crossing. And now, as I walk with ease onto my vessel, I feel confidence welling.


I stand back, on the grassy bank, admiring my new gangway and how it reaches for the deck of my boat, blond planking sleek and unassuming. Quietly and elegantly doing its job. If it could speak, I imagine it would say ‘I plan to spend the rest of my days here with you, making your life easier.’


I traverse it once again, deliberately heavy footed, smiling at the lack of reaction. I fetch my shopping from the car and, a heavy carrier bag in one hand and a bundle of logs under the other arm, I walk across my new gangway. Without holding on.


All wobbliness is gone.


I feel safe.

Dreams and a boat that knows.

Out of the blue, I have another one of those ‘Bob is back’ dreams.


I haven’t had one for several months - something that could be regarded as progress in what’s sometimes called a recovery process. The dream makes up for the lengthy absence by being detailed and vividly real. It sparkles with sharply convincing reasoning for the kind of events usually regarded as unarguable. A certified dead body for instance. A burial witnessed by a great deal of people.


As the days pass, my memory of the dream grows blurry, but what I still remember in detail is Bob explaining how this gross misunderstanding came to arise, in a way that makes perfect sense. He smiles ruefully as he apologises for all the upset, chuckling slightly at the gigantic – but for some reason highly necessary - ruse we have all fallen for.


Of course my dream persona is irritated – who wouldn’t be? But irritation is eclipsed by the relief and joy of knowing that it has all been a mistake, and now we can finally get back to normal and really enjoy life again. The relief and joy lasts a full minute after waking. Then reality dawns, sludgy and cloying, contorting my dream filled smile. Forcing me to once again confront the fact that He Is Never Coming Back.


I am staying with friends. I have someone to talk to. I only cry for a minute.


When I come home to my boat, I am glad, very glad, that before I left I set both woodburners ready to light. That I tidied and polished so that the interior of the boat gleams. That it is not yet dark. Even so, right up until the last second before I push the heavy sliding door open, I fantasise helplessly about a greeting from within.


Dumping my bag, I bustle about, lighting fires, switching fairy lights into twinkling warmth. Drawing blinds against the dusk. Turning on radio 4, so that voices fill the space, creating the illusion of another presence. I unpack, folding, tucking, rearranging. I check the battery and water tanks, making sure that nothing has gone wrong in my absence. All is well.


Except that all is not well. Not really. Because the feeling of incompleteness is stronger than ever. And now I wonder if the fault is with me – and that I am subconsciously perpetuating this feeling. That another would simply gather herself, reject all these ‘I am so alone’ thoughts and bundle them back out into the universe. I remember a conversation with my sister on this subject, a few months before she died, and how her words were a balance of good sense and empathy. I wish she was here now, standing next to me.


I put on the kettle – more for something to do than because I want a hot drink. And then the shrill whine of the inverter alarming cuts through my ponderings, rescuing me from further pointless self analysis, forcing me to engage in more productive activities.


Locating the inverter switch, turning it off, starting up the generator, switching on the inverter again. I scramble down into engine room to check a connection, aided by a super bright rechargeable battery lamp, a wonderfully thoughtful present given to me a few days ago by some old friends. I smile with pleasure as it illuminates the gloom, making life instantly much easier.


Later on I construct a rather delicious supper of baked beans on oatcakes, with sliced tomatoes. Studiously trying to be mindful, I resist the temptation to read or watch Netflix while I eat. I gaze into the fire and savour every beany bite. And the idea pops into my head that perhaps the boat noticed that I needed a distraction, sending a gentle malfunction to fulfil that need.


A whimsical thought indeed.

Buoyant and Bacon

I had planned an early swim at the nearby pool this morning.


Beaten back by dark and frost however, I am still guiltily pyjama clad at 8am. Snuggled in bed, with a huge mug of coffee, enjoying the glow of woodburner and fairy lights. But the need to be present and correct for breakfast at our writers’ retreat has instilled some kind of permanent alarm inside me, making me twitchy and unable to concentrate on my book. And so I propel myself out of bed, intent on getting myself and my boat in order.


The morning routine is curiously grounding. Taking out the ash from both woodburners, cleaning the glass doors, laying a small stack for the next lighting and brushing up. Switching on the inverter, (turned off during the night to save power) checking the batteries and starting the generator if needed. Today I see with satisfaction that the bright sunshine melting the frost is already feeding the solar panels, charging the battery. Maybe there’ll also be a downpour later, to fill up the water tanks. I feel a surge of hope at 

he thought and note how much pleasure I derive from small things. This is good, I think.


I wrap up warmly and take another mug of coffee up to the top deck. Settling myself in the low rocking chair, I gaze with pleasure at the sunlit view. A family of mallard ducks potter around on the mud, their broad beaks scooping and foraging. A long legged bird arrives and surveys the scene with disdain. Bob would know what it is. I consider going down to get my bird book. I sip my coffee, the sun warm on my face. I am too lazy to move.


I think about yesterday’s visit to a dear friend and boat neighbour who is dealing with a recent and savage diagnosis. He and his wife are resilient and pragmatic, exploring alternative treatments and facing whatever may come with calm determination and glints of humour. I came home from the visit feeling uplifted and strangely optimistic. And – inevitably, pondering on my own relationship with mortality. Would I be less than this? Was I?


Later that day I have a routine eye test and the optician tells me that there is nothing to worry about – BUT...I have the beginnings of a cataract in one eye. Hugely buoyed by the discovery that all her clever equipment shows that everything else in my head is healthy, I tell her that this bothers me not at all.


On the way home, I stop at the cafe boat and celebrate my newly confirmed head health with a bacon sandwich. The chewy saltiness of the bacon combines eagerly with the wet crunch of tomato and lettuce and there has been no compromise in the mayonnaise department. I bite into the thick white casing with closed eyes pleasure. And now I am doing that thing of being in this moment. The only one that matters.


And it is bloody wonderful.

Tears and Fears, but no Water.

She has a quite extraordinarily long job title, this girl who, we have been led to believe, is a junior member of the legal profession. It includes the words interim and monitoring and officer and manager. Her email is also long, but says very little.


Without apology, she writes that the water we were promised by her employers, the local council, will not be forthcoming ‘for the foreseeable future,’ despite the fact that there is apparently considerable commitment involved. I and the other boat owners have kept a careful eye on the rogue standpipe but have seen very little evidence of said commitment or indeed any activity at all. We are disappointed but not surprised at this.


I frequently wonder, since the move, how long we will be emailing and phoning on almost a daily basis in pursuit of basic facilities. Water, recycling collection, post - streetlights, even. Where did my plan for a peaceful life go wrong? It wasn’t supposed to be like this.


I embark on a long and repetitious inner dialogue, which culminates in a yet another dark replay of my failure – two years and nine months ago – to keep Bob alive. Another dissection of my too slow dash to an uncharged mobile phone. Of my attempts to resuscitate him.


The hard pressure of my lips on his, so familiar, is an un-erasable memory. Likewise the desperate belief that any second he would sit up and laugh, making me yell at him for terrifying me. Yet again, I tumble back through time to watch myself pushing away the truth of what was happening, told by the dull glaze of his half open eyes.


And then the ghastly calm of the hours and days and weeks that followed. Nodding, smiling tightly, getting through, doing what needed to be done.


Before I know it, anger and sadness are all over me, pushing their way inside me. Terror follows – at past events – how could this possibly have happened to me?- at the present – what am I doing here? – and of course, at the prospect of an uncertain future. I sit at my desk, drowning in self pitying tears, pouting, pushing my laptop away, rejecting today’s words like a toddler refusing food.


And then, as it always does, the crying stops and I remind myself that everyone’s future is uncertain – and that I have a lunch date with two of the boat girls on the cafe boat nearby. Cheesy chips and a beer makes everything a little better.


I take a deep breath and decide to do a 15 minute meditation. I do my best to follow the advice of the soft voiced lady and simply notice thoughts and emotions without creating a story around them. At the end of the meditation, I resolve to ride the waves of life, as she suggests - without letting them wipe me out.


This turns my thoughts to body boarding and I check the tides and surf. I shake out my wetsuit in preparation for a watery outing. Things are looking up, I think. And then I pick up my guitar and start to strum and hum, enjoying the feeling of producing a surprisingly pleasant sound.


And everything seems quite peaceful.

Words and workmanship

The man is red faced and he wears his angry expression resolutely, as if intent on finding something to be cross about. My rubbish parking has made him very cross indeed. It’s also made him slow down as he negotiates his way past my car’s rear, which protrudes inelegantly into the road. He winds his window down and comments rudely as he crawls past.


Swallowing the desire to say, ‘oh piss off, you miserable fucker,’ I smile and tell him that we can’t all be good at everything. ‘I have other qualities,’ I say, waving as I nip across the road in front of him and he smiles, despite himself, like a toddler whose determination to have a tantrum has been sabotaged by a loving parent.


Dashing back from the laundrette, laden down with clean washing, I ponder briefly on how easy it is to assume that yours is an island of grief upon which you are the only inhabitant. Death touches us all eventually, some sooner than others.


The tide is low and my gangway slopes precariously. I eagerly anticipate its new look – twice the length, with large wheels on the end, salvaged from a golf trolley at the recycling centre. I am confident this will make getting on and off the boat delightfully easy. For now though, I inch my way down it, one hand clutching my bag of laundry, the other firmly on the handrail.


I imagine Bob inspecting the gangway, and the look of disgust which invariably crossed his face at the sight of poor workmanship. ‘Useless wankers,’ he’d mutter, squatting down to examine a joint or fixing. Frowning, running his fingers over and around the offending part, as if he could improve it with his touch.


I smile as I remember him dismantling a crudely made chair at one holiday home we stayed at and remaking it. ‘Just looking at it pissed me off,’ he said, coaxing the rough edges together and smoothing them into submission. I marvelled at how his hands, starfish like and nobbly knuckled – could work with such skill and produce such beauty. And as always, I couldn’t resist getting close, stroking his neck as he worked, feeling his warmth, laying my head against him.


It is a chilly afternoon and I light the woodburner, giving myself a mental pat for cleaning out the grate and re- laying the fire that morning before I left. You even polished the glass, I tell myself with a satisfied air. Then I think a trifle ruefully that these kind of conversations with myself are becoming the norm.


I see that the battery is low, but I can’t face the thrum of the generator, so I decide to manage for the evening with fire and fairy lights. More than anything, I’d love a bath. But for the time being the lack of water and in particular hot water means that my lovely gold bath is purely ornamental. It’ll happen, I tell myself firmly. All will be sorted in time.


I have spent the day at a local drop in centre. I volunteer there one day a week, dishing out hot meals and making sandwiches for anyone who’s homeless or just down on their luck. The clients are charming and appreciative.


I sit by the fire, thinking of how one client, noticing my wedding ring, asked me what my husband thought about me working there. Immediately and miserably defensive, I said, ‘He doesn’t think anything. He’s dead.’


His face fell and I regretted my sharpness. ‘I loved him very much,’ I said.


His eyes held mine. ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ he said simply.


And I was warmed by his words.

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Birthdays and boats.

November 5th is Bob’s birthday.


Should that be was Bob’s birthday? I’ve always had trouble with tenses and now more than ever. 


The children send me a funny picture of one of them standing alongside the impossibly enormous rocket they have bought, pointing at it, with the caption ‘This gonna get lit.’ I laugh. A lot.


I find myself thinking and reminiscing. A lot. The usual distracting thoughts that swarm around my meditation practice are even more cloying than usual. Even as I push them away, they simply swim back, like gentle boomerangs, refusing to relinquish their place in my head. The lady with the soft voice reassures me that it’s ok, and I try to focus on the breath.


I sit down at my desk to work on my book, reminding myself of how, in my previous life, I would often tell would be writers to ‘just write.’ But now as I stare at the screen, exhaustion overwhelms me and I wrestle with the thought that perhaps I am not capable of something so big.


Growling, I jump to my feet and embark on a set of boat chores. Checking, tweaking, tightening, sweeping. It’s raining and the steady drip of a persistent leak in the roof galvanises me to make a list of Things That Need Doing.


Bob liked lists. He loved the feeling of being in control of a situation. I could see it in him as he ticked things off, his face aglow with satisfaction. I remember the feeling of being happy that he was happy, his glance that said everything was working out well, and the feeling of being in thoroughly in love and being loved.


The day creaks to a close. I force myself to practice guitar, persuading my left hand into the gymnastics that are barre chords and smiling slightly as they ring out true. Gritting my teeth, I do a line edit on a few pages of my book. At least that’s something.


That evening, the children send a video of the rocket exploding in the sky, hot red rain cascading back to earth. There is a soundtrack of shrieks and laughter and shouts of ‘call the fire brigade.’ There is a card for Bob too, a funny cartoon covered with messages of wistful love and scrawled kisses. Their affection and stoicism overwhelms me and I feel almost ashamed of my tears, although I remind myself that these days there is a gentler quality to them.


I light the fire and switch on the fairy lights, feeling the space soften around me. The bottle of white wine in my fridge beckons, a chilly seductress. Telling myself that the promise of feeling better is a lie, I resist. I make myself some delicious cinnamon tea and remember with some pleasure that House of Cards is back on Netflix. I decide to spend the evening seeing if Robin can fill Kevin’s tarnished shoes.


Settling down on the sofa with tea and a soft rug, I look again at the pictures and video. And predictably, I laugh and cry. Again.


Half an hour later, having made a distress call to my boat neighbour, she and I are out in the wind and rain, battling to save my gangway, which, prompted by the very high tide, seems intent on plunging into the river. Between us – I on the boat and she on shore, we manage to wrestle the bloody thing back to safety. Laughing rather hysterically, we shout well done at each other and I thank her profusely and offer her a drink. She points out that getting on or off my boat is currently risky/downright dangerous and I wave as she disappears into the darkness.


I wish there were photos. Our children would be proud.

Moment to moment.

‘Being in the moment’ is one of those phrases I used to scoff at. Like ‘touching base’ and ‘moving forwards’.


Thanks, however, to my little app of Calm, this phrase is starting to ring true. And weirdly, I realise it’s something I’ve been trying to do for a while now.


If you think about it (but don’t over analyse it) being in the moment makes perfect sense. Because continually fretting about the past and future, or making plans for the days and weeks and months ahead, means never appreciating the present.


This doesn’t of course mean that you can’t have memories.


On that last evening, I remember Bob standing at the sink, washing up, a spotify reggae playlist thumping softly from the laptop in the corner. I left him there and went to bed. I wanted an early night, but I ended up reading for two hours. Unsurprisingly, the thought that I could have spent those two hours with Bob has planted itself in my mind and I don’t think that any amount of counselling or meditating will ever shift it. But maybe – eventually, I can view the thought in a different way, so that it doesn’t jab at me quite so viciously.


‘Thoughts are just that – thoughts,’ says the lady with the gentle voice. ‘If they frighten or worry you, remember that has much more to do with the scenarios you create around the thoughts. So just let them go and focus on the here and now.’


I rather enjoy visualising thoughts – especially troublesome ones - as clouds, which can be given a gentle push. I watch them floating off into the sky and return to the present.


There’s a lot to be said for living in the moment. When I hear people planning for a time in the distant future, I want to urge them to enjoy the now. Seize the day and all that. Bob and I occasionally discussed future plans and how much fun we were going to have, and once or twice, when he was tired, I remember him saying something about jam tomorrow.


The final peaceful seconds of my morning meditation is rather tarnished by a sudden shrill noise from the engine room. My eyes fly open. Longer hours of darkness means less solar power and the batteries have dropped too low, making the inverter alarm. Its whine is ear piercing. Cursing, but calm, I grab a torch and clamber through the low opening, made for pixies. I head for the red glow of the box that cleverly converts 12 volt to 240 volt. I press the switch on top of the box. For a few seconds, I squat there, savouring the silence. I congratulate myself on remaining in the moment.


As I re-emerge, I bang my head hard on the corner of the pixie door. It hurts. A lot. I blink back tears, grit my teeth and remember that now there’s not enough power in the batteries to flush the loo. I switch on the generator, which, in the quiet of the early morning, sounds like a volcano erupting. Half an hour and two cups of coffee later, I switch the generator off. Blessed silence.


It is getting light and the sun is coming up, mingling with the swirls of mist across the river. It is simply beautiful and, wrapped in a big fluffy cardigan, I go out onto the top deck, perching on the edge of a frosty chair, to sip yet another cup of coffee and just gaze. This, I think, is a moment worth being in.


I find myself smiling as I enjoy the view and I think of a conversation I had a few days ago, when someone asked what kind of pension I had. I told them that I didn’t have one, and that it didn’t matter.


Because I have a boat.

wordless rope

The noise of words and boats.

It is obvious that this woman wants to talk. And since I am the only other person in the changing room, I am going to be her target.


She tells me how lonely life has become for her since her husband has begun working long hours in his new job. He is often away for ten or more hours every day, she says, leaving her to find other company. It is, she tells me, very difficult. ‘Some days he’s so late, I wonder if he’s ever coming back,’ she confides.


I hear, rather than listen. Eventually, when she pauses for a second, I say, ‘My husband’s dead.’


She says, ‘Oh!’ in a shocked tone and an expression very much like disgust crosses her face. Then she says, ‘Well he’s definitely not coming back.’


For a moment I think she’s going to laugh at what could, I suppose, be perceived as a witticism. Then she continues, piling sentences on top of each other - until I began to feel mildly concussed. It’s as if she is creating a wall of words, opaque and impenetrable.


Quickly, I finish dressing, apply more lipstick and leave with a half hearted wave. I hold the door for an elderly lady entering the changing room and knowing what awaits her, I can’t help smiling in a slightly pitying way.


At 2.20 am I am woken by a loud creaking sound, right above my head. It makes me think of the noise made by huge wooden slave ships, as, in the not so distant past, they carried their exhausted terrified cargo across stormy seas. I know it is the gangway, its wooden planes and joints scraping and groaning as the incoming tide forces it to move in unnatural shapes.But that doesn’t stop me going out with a torch and checking the  mooring ropes.


The full moon shows me that the coils of rope holding my boat bind snugly to the mooring points and each other. I remember the words of an old fisherman I once worried to, some time ago, as he settled his own boat next to mine. ‘They ropes’d hold the QE2,’ he said cheerfully. I am comforted.


Shivering, I go inside and check that the battery hasn’t dipped so low that the inverter could alarm. If it has, I will have to turn on the generator, a purring noisy beast. It is fine, but I continue to prowl restlessly, listening to check that my new water tanks haven’t overflowed. They are fine. All is well.


I settle myself into my contemplation corner, drawing a soft rug around me and select a short meditation from my Calm app. As I listen to the narrator’s soothing voice, I try to focus on the breath, as she suggests. I notice worrisome thoughts – and let them go, as she directs.


Fifteen minutes later, I climb back into bed, snuggling deep into its pillowy embrace and falling instantly asleep.

Contemplation corner

Cushion Comfort

One of my children thinks I have too many cushions. It’s true that cushions are not in short supply on my boat. But now there is a new need for them. Who would have thought that in this small space, I could discover an area that clearly pleads for the squishy solace they provide.


Such is the power of the eye that given time, roves around and sees possibilities where before there were none. A shift of a few centimetres, a quick rearrangement and another space appears, brimming with potential.


Filled with the energy that comes from a good day’s writing, I set to, extracting stowed away rugs, draping and pinning them to give a sort of luxurious tent like feel. More cushions, rich coloured and sensuous, nestle in as if they have been waiting for this moment all their cushion lives. Golden orbs and a cascade of autumn and rust, in the form of fairy lights, frame the tableau.


I pull down the blinds and light the woodburner. Moving slowly, savouring the moment, I switch on the fairy lights. Then I sink into my new nest, glancing around me, luxuriating in the glow. I feel happy, but also suddenly sad because as always, I am frustrated in my need to share with someone who isn’t here.


He’s still with you, they say. Even non believers spout little sayings which I know come from a desire to comfort. Hold him in your heart. Carry the memories with you. Often I feel ungrateful when my rejection of these platitudes is obvious. Self pitying. Grief is a selfish emotion. I wonder if they see me as wallowing in my grief. Prolonging it unnecessarily.


(In the spirit of fairness, I sometimes discuss this with myself, chattily, thoughtfully. It’s not as if I spend my days weeping and wailing and breast beating. I’m pretty normal and happy-ish a lot of the time. This conversation inevitably ends in a glaring lack of resolution.)


I decide not to give in. I swallow the lump and sit a little straighter. My cushion obligingly adjusts itself to better support me. Will it always be like this? Probably.


The next day my neighbour and I are having coffee and I show her my meditation corner. She cleverly re-names it the contemplation corner, completing my delight with what I have created.


Later that day, I try to explain to my own non believer that, like fairy lights, cushions are something you can never have too many of. But even in the face of pictorial evidence, he remains unconvinced.


I resolve to continue this discussion another day.

Gold bath

Going Gold

My bath is gold.


Gazing at my finished paint job, I am reminded of a piece I once wrote about an Olympic gold medallist, who, to illustrate the piece, allowed herself to be sprayed gold. Half warrior, half goddess, she glittered on the page, every line of her body imbued with metallic glory.


Unlike my bath, she was immaculate. No drips or streaks sullied her golden limbs. But I rather like the slightly battered effect. Wabi sabi. It’s as if some kind soul glanced at my little white bath in passing - and decided to brighten it up by chucking a bucket of gold paint over it.


The recent high tides and stormy weather have played havoc with boat life. Leaking decks (not mine), ropes that constantly need checking and adjusting, tilting angles, rocking strong enough to tip things from shelves, loud banging noises in the middle of night and gangways that go walkabout, (making access to the quay something of a challenge) produce a toxic soup of anxiety and stress for boat dwellers.


And even as I tell myself I do not want to be – have never wanted to be – a whingeing widow person, I find sometimes find myself thinking – and occasionally saying, ‘But at least there’s two of you/them. Everything’s a little easier when there’s a warm body next to you.’ And then I hate myself for becoming the person I swore I would never be.



The tides are low now, barely touching the boat, and the wind and rain has retreated. Along with other boat dwellers, I sweep and retie and pick up and mend. I tidy and clean inside and out. The battery is low, so I switch on the generator for an hour, quickly acclimatising to its purring vibration. I check the water tanks, which, after the recent deluge, are full.


Like a kind of human magpie, I find I am drawn to ever brighter colours, particularly in response to stress. The vivid reds blues and sunset yellows daubed throughout my boat are no longer enough. I am, it seems, entering my gold phase. Are magpies naturally happy, I wonder – or prone to depression?


This morning I wake with another Bob dream fresh in my head. As usual it leaves me readjusting, after an all too brief few seconds of life having gone back to normal. I leap out of bed before any kind of mood can claim  me, and wash and dress with abrasive speed, as if battling an unseen force. I scrub and floss my teeth and bare them at my reflection in the mirror, a stern disciplinarian.


I meditate for ten minutes before sitting down to write and, rather to my surprise, I finish the practice calmed and invigorated. Just before I leap into the world of words, I take another look at my gold bath. It is beautiful.


The sun is out and I decide to postpone writing for an hour in favour of taking my neighbour’s delightful dog for a walk. And - as it goes, that works out well, because as I walk, I write in my head.

barre/bar chord vehicle

Barres and Bars and Bugs

Barre chords are a complete bastard.


I take a perverse pleasure in thinking that I may not have spelled bar/barre correctly. Knowing how I hate it when people get my name wrong – Debra, Debbie, Deby - I anthropomorphise these tricky chords, taking revenge on their awkwardness by sabotaging their name.


Three fingers curl so that that my now nonexistent nails tip over the strings, creating a line of knuckles I never knew I had, while my wonky index finger attempts to create the bar/barre. My hit rate has gone from almost never, to about 50 percent, which I suppose is progress. Gritting my teeth, I persevere, as my calm ever patient teacher, advises.


There is a standpipe at our new berth. It is metered, of course - but handy for those dry periods when my rainwater collection is inadequate. And also for clean drinking water. Alas, the first time I and a neighbour dial in the padlock code and fill a container, it produces water that is a murky beige and smells strongly of what we agree is sewage.


The local environmental officer comes out to test the water, which is now running clear and has no odour. Shaking his head dolefully, he insists that what I am saying is virtually impossible. He seems to be implying that I have fabricated the stinky water story – as if I am suffering from a bout of Object Munchausen’s by Proxy. I am taken aback and tell him that I have a witness. He tugs at his high viz waistcoat, making me wish that I had one, too.


It is a warm day and I offer to fetch a glass, so that he can have some water from the tap in front of us. He declines and gets on with the business of testing for all kinds of bugs. We shake hands and he leaves, promising to let me know the results within the next day or two.


Sitting down at my desk, I continue the editing process of what I now call my writing project. For an hour, I doggedly correct typos, rephrase and delete small swathes. All the while knowing that much more than this is required – and constantly pushing away the tidal wave of negativity that screams ‘YOU AREN’T UP TO THE JOB. IN SHORT, YOU CAN’T FUCKING DO THIS.’


At midday, I sigh loudly and deeply, telling myself that I am expelling negative energy. I take my guitar from its hook. I strum the song I am learning, humming along and half way through I hit the bar/barre chord clear and true. I finish the song, my voice louder and more confident. I wonder at the fact that this small happiness can produce tears. Especially from someone who, less than three years ago, sometimes proclaimed almost proudly, ‘It takes a lot to make me cry.’


The next day I get an email from the environmental officer. The water system, which also supplies the local council offices, next door, is contaminated. It will be shut down immediately so that the pipework can be disinfected. He thanks me for bringing it to his attention.

Jubilation and Despair

Once again, the journey from water tanks to taps is proving too much for the system. Even though it is less than three hours since the new pump was fitted, replacing the old burned out pump. My recently arrived guests display remarkable fortitude in the face of this news and one of them drives off to buy some canisters of water. We discuss techniques to flush the loo, wash, etc and despite the lack of mod cons, we have a lovely evening.


Next morning, after waving my visitors goodbye, I decide to shimmy down into the engine room and have a look at the pump. Just, you know, in case the problem is obvious. Trying to pretend that my back is supple, I wriggle past engines, generator, battery, charger and inverter, cooing at them sweetly, encouragingly.


Arriving at the back of the boat, in close proximity to my cruelly full water tanks, I see the pump. I marvel at its small size. How can it possibly cope with the enormity of the task in hand?


Then I squeak with the realisation that the problem couldn’t be more obvious. The pressure has pushed one of the valves completely free of the pump. Instead of guiding the water into the pipes, up and out of the taps, it hangs uselessly, dripping into its dark surroundings.


I jam the valve back onto the pump and excitedly crawl upstairs to the light. I switch on the pump and turn the tap – and precious water gushes forth. My joy is only marginally curtailed as it becomes clear that the valve is intent on popping off. It is a repeat offender.


Upon consulting, I learn that I need a Jubilee clip. Jubilee is a joyful word. A party word, full of celebration. I can’t help thinking it’s an odd name for a small metal clip. But then, I muse, if it does the job, there will indeed be cause for celebration. Resisting the urge to write a piece on the simple joy of taps that produce water, I go shopping.


‘What size?’ asks the man in the hardware shop. I frown and say small.


Once again I am squatting in the dark, only prevented from swearing out loud by the torch I am holding in my mouth, in order to have both hands free. For some reason, I can’t get the screwdriver to tighten the Jubilee clip properly, and I can see that this remedy isn’t, as it stands, going to work.


For possibly the millionth time, I wish two things, hard. One, that I had paid more attention when Bob was attending to the numerous repair jobs he did on a daily basis. Jubilee clip is a word I heard often over the years. But until now I didn’t even know what one looked like. And two, that he was still here. So that he could sort out the stupid pump. And because I miss him.


I crouch, aching backed, clutching screwdriver and happily named clip, pondering the problem and fighting loneliness. And almost before I know it, the toad that is grief has waddled over and is clasping me tightly, heavily, so that I can’t shake it off.

A Tilt and A Triumph


The man with the strange stare is back. He stands by my boat, one hand on the railing of the gangway in a proprietorial way. Since I am aware that ostensibly, he is here to help,  I conquer the urge to tell him to take his hand off my property.


Pale and goat-like, his eyes rove over my boat and the bed of mud it sits on. His stomach protrudes importantly and he wears his high viz waistcoat like badge, comfortable in the knowledge that it confers authority. He says something I know to be incorrect and I bite back a contradiction, knowing that it might further reduce the small chance that he will sort out the problem. Namely the tilt of the boat, which now means that the overflow on the water tanks is running uphill. Accordingly, when the tanks are full, the excess water has nowhere to go, except into the engine room.


I discovered this a few days ago, during a downpour, when I realised that the watery noises I was hearing were coming from inside the boat. Ever alert to the fact that the sound of water is fine - pleasant, even, but only when it's coming from the outside - particularly when a boat is involved, I grabbed a torch and hot footed it down into the engine room. There I found a gushing flood as the water tanks unburdened themselves.


Even as I dialled for help, panicky fingers missing keys, I was already solving the problem. Clambering outside onto the boat's wide ledge, still pointlessly clutching my phone, reaching for the filler pipe, yanking it out, so that the  precious water spilled into the river. Back inside, turning on all six taps and flushing both loos repeatedly. Peering down into the engine room and seeing the gushing slow and stop.


The man with the strange stare looks thoughtful and makes a couple of suggestions, saying he will be back later to re-assess the situation. I can't see the point of this, but I nod and watch his yellow back as he moves ponderously away from my boat.


I think again about how I dealt with the near flood and it occurs to me that for the first time, I didn't automatically whirl around, searching for Bob. And that although the solution was admittedly simple, I fixed it myself. I muse that this may be what some people call progress. I allow myself to call it a small triumph.


The next day I receive an email from the man with the strange stare, saying that he and the organisation he works for will endeavour to assist me, going forwards. This does not inspire me with hope for a straightened boat. He concludes the email with a 'rgds' and then his name.


I consider various responses, but in the end I don't reply.


Mail and the Moon


I repeat my new address in what sounds like a hiss. Too late, I try to moderate my tone and explain the similarity to my old address, for the third time. Sea Otter houseboat - Sea Otter houseboat. But the Royal Mail operative is already recoiling from my snake like delivery. She informs me briskly that I am giving her insufficient information and that she can no longer continue the conversation. While I am protesting, the line goes dead.


I stare at the phone and take a deep breath. The thought of once more negotiating the various options and being forced to listen to tinned Vivaldi depresses me immeasurably. Instead, I scroll through the weekend's pictures. A family picnic at the natural burial ground, in unexpected sunshine. Food and wine around the firepit, set a short distance from the reason we are there. The grave, unassuming with its small brass plaque set flat into the ground. An oval shaped grassy mound, which we trim with clippers, laughing and talking.


My new skirt is swishy, brightly coloured and satisfyingly pocketed, and the red boots I wore to the funeral go well with it. My hair is freshly cut and highlighted and I am wearing the kind of makeup that requires tongue chewing during application. I am surrounded by my family. In many ways it is a perfect day.


It is only as we leave and I pause by the grave, thinking to wave a cheery goodbye, that tears descend with lightening speed. There is not even the slightest throat lump to warn me, and the intensity of emotion makes me dizzy. Forever reality hits and denial is cruelly pierced. His name and the dates are blurry but I can read them and I know what they mean. He. Is. Not. Coming. Back. Fresh misery wraps itself around me, hammering me into the ground until I feel as if I may join him. I wonder briefly if I will fall sobbing onto grave, ruining the day with unwelcome melodrama.


I am hugged by more than one person and I hear myself saying, 'I wish he was still here.'

As laments go, this is not a memorable one, but my huggers are instantly empathetic. They say nothing. They don't need to. The wave passes, as always, and once again I have not drowned.  


That evening as we sit on deck, the full moon looms impossibly large and low. It lights a broad path across the river and we marvel at the theatrical scene. I squint at it, likening its half smile to Bob's sarky one. Any minute, I think tipsily, it'll ll say, 'Stop necking Prosecco, Dooley. You'll feel shit in the morning.'


I smile at the pictures on my phone, enjoying the colours that seem brighter than real life. My boat tilts gently towards the sun in its new berth and I take my coffee on deck, lifting my face skywards and closing my eyes, like a cat. After a few minutes, I sigh and go inside to phone Royal Mail again.


Jumper love.

Love and water.


I am in love.


I gaze at myself in the mirror, seeing how my eyes shine with happiness and my mouth curves contentedly. The object of my adoration embraces me softly, caressing my skin and fitting to my body in a way that says 'We were made for each other.'


Green, a glorious sea green, the colour of mermaids hair, opaque but also translucent, the sweater settles lovingly around my shoulders and I lean my head sideways, so that it can whisper to me. I close my eyes, savouring the feel of it against my cheek. It is smooth but fluffy, light but cosy, loose but fitted. It is the queen of all jumpers and now the thought of life without it is unbearable.


The tag on my new love tells me it is French, and that the price is roughly a week's minimum wages. Gently, reluctantly, I peel away from it and return it to the shelf, folding, smoothing. I explain to the smiling shop owner that I really can't afford it and she nods understandingly. But when she says, a trifle sadly, that the colour really suits me, I know it's true and a dagger of regret pierces me. For what is life without true love?


That evening, I am crouching crossly in the engine room, trying to persuade the water pump to work (with Bob's hammer) and now my two loves are vying for space in my head.

'If you love it, get it. You work hard. You deserve it. It's only money.(Bob)

'I make you happy.' (The jumper.)


The first was once a familiar refrain, the second a perfect complement.

The next day I return to the shop. I am greeted without surprise and told that my jumper is still here. I try it on once more, checking that the delay has not diminished the charm of that first meeting. But if anything, 24 hours apart has increased our passion and I watch, transfixed, as my green seductress wraps herself around me. I sigh with pleasure and hand over my card.


Carrying my new love in a bag that is thickly expensive looking, I stop to buy 5 litres of water. Even the need to lug water onto my boat - when the tanks are bloody well full - cannot dent my happiness. Carefully I put away jumper and water, each in their place. And then, just for the hell of it, I press the switch on the water pump and turn both kitchen taps full on.


The system gurgles like an IBS afflicted elephant on a bad day - and water gushes out. As I frown and then smile, my brain attempts to find words of explanation for this phenomenon. Although it manages only two, 'air' and 'lock', more generic ones swiftly follow. 'Hurray.'  'The pump's working again.' and 'Thank fuck for that.' 


Today is a good day.



Simple seat.

Moved to tears.

The woman in front of me is worried about her shoes. Or rather the muddily grassed area that is our new mooring spot, and the damage it might cause to her shoes.


In view of the damage to one of our boats, caused largely by poor preparation of the berth, my fellow boat owners and I find her shoes not at all concerning and I tell her this. She glances at me. Distaste flickers across her expertly made up face.


'My dear,' she begins, her voice exaggeratedly patient. I quickly explain that even her elevated position as head of a local council doesn't entitle her to patronise me. The mug of tea in my hand lurches and I walk away, aware that although hurling the contents would bring momentary satisfaction, it would certainly worsen the situation.


I glance over my shoulder and see that she has been persuaded to overcome her worries and is picking her way across the grass to inspect the damage. The circus of people in high viz waistcoats continue to argue and blame each other for the fiasco, drawing back and parting to allow her to pass. Alert to any deference, however slight, her back straightens a tad, giving her a regal air.


Two minutes later she is safely back in her car, muddy shoed.


Feeling slightly sick, I look away from the sight of my lovely home being dragged across the water. My boat pauses in the middle of the river. Its sleek lines are blurred and it is ungainly, helpless, surrounded by smaller boats peopled by men shouting and tugging on ropes. I feel oddly invaded and when it is safely moored up again, I snap at one chap taking a well earned rest on the deck. 


The move has been traumatic. Seismic in its power to shake and destabilise. I try to be grownup about it, to pull myself together. I still have a lovely view, I tell myself sternly. It is pretty here. Better, in some ways.


When everyone has gone, I climb aboard and start to tidy and replace objects on shelves. But the boat is tilting as it settles in the mud. Uphill. Suddenly all the early terrors are back. I try - and fail - to push away an image of the boat executing a lumbering backwards somersault. I can almost hear the screeching of steel as, Titanic like, it slowly implodes. Tears of fright and self pity sting and well, and I mourn my lack of Bob with renewed vigour. He would have made everything safe, somehow. But now I feel unsafe and, shaking with outrage and fear, I scramble off my boat via the wobbly gangplank, swearing at it and giving it a final kick. 


Several hours later, after a stormy visit to a friend, I am back and my boat family is there, reassuring, adjusting ropes, coaxing the boat back slightly, so that it sits better, making the gangway secure, pouring wine. One, having listened to my unreasonable rant about muddy boot prints on the decks, brings me a bright red mop and bucket.


When the tide goes down, the scary uphill tilt is rectified. Now I am tilting slightly to one side, but I and the other boat people are used to that. And it's quite fun to put down a glass on the worktop and watch it slide gracefully towards the river.


The next day I use my lovely new mop to swab the decks until they are pristine blue. Then I spend an hour using Bob's saw to cut a green-stained pallet in half, creating a seat for the deck. I work methodically, carefully, oiling the teeth of the saw when it sticks, remembering to extend my forefinger, guiding it. I am polite but chilly in my rejection of an offer from a passing dog walker to 'do that for you.' His reply is drowned out by the noise of the saw.


It is a meditative exercise and the end result is satisfying. Wide and low.

I sit on my new seat and drink a cold beer, staring at my new view. I stretch my legs out in front of me, watching my feet do a little pitter pat dance of triumph. I think of my sister and her funny river dances and I smile as I picture her leaping around our kitchen, her shrieks of laughter mingling with the music.


I feel calm. And safe. The sun comes out unexpectedly and I tell myself that this is a good omen.


Lessons and waves.

'Just to let you know that the law in this country has nothing to do with what's right or wrong, and it has nothing to do with fairness.'


The barrister seems pleased with himself as he damns his own profession. He has the glossy plump necked look of someone who has done well for himself and he appears comfortable and confident in his role as mediator between a handful of houseboat owners and the local council.


Predictably, proceedings are swift. Even before this mediation meeting, court orders have already been served, in the form of officials appearing at our boats and hurling bundles of papers at us while taking photos and shouting, 'you've been served. (This makes me feel rather as though I am in a Netflix legal drama.) If we aren't already aware that the whole sorry game is pretty much over, the mediator's opening statement has made this blindingly clear.


He tells us that he is pleased to have dissuaded the other side from claiming several thousand pounds from us in legal costs. Unaware that this was ever a possibility, we agree that this is a good thing, although he seems disappointed at our lack of effusiveness. He winds up the session an hour early, leaving us to seek solace in the form of beer and cheesy chips at a nearby cafe.


We contemplate the impending move from moorings on one side of the river, rendered free by an ancient harbour act, to fee paying ones on the other side. The view won't be as good, but it is still beautiful. There will be a water supply available (for a fee). The moorings will be secure, up to a point. We agree that there are positives.


But today's lesson, that the law is essentially something for those with money and power has shaken me slightly. I can't help feeling a bit like a child who has just discovered that Father Christmas is a fake. Or someone who has  realised  that the police are not always your friend.


In a way, it's another loss. Of something that I thought was solid and dependable. Always there to catch me. A safety net. An anchor.


The day of mediation is hot and sunny. I come back to my boat, do a few chores and write a bit, gazing fondly at my view that will soon be different. But the words thud heavily onto the screen, lifeless and dull. Depression claws at me, making me feel once again as if everything is pointless. Bereavement is opportunistic. It subsides when times are good and flares up again when they're not so good, in the way that malaria does, or glandular fever.


I am pleased, however, that I know what to do.

'You can fuck off,' I tell it,  loudly. Google voice activation on my phone is still on and the sentence leaps into life, brightly, euphemistically. 'You can f--- off!' exclaims my screen excitedly.


I laugh at it and collect swimsuit and towel. Ten minutes later I and my board am ploughing through the surf. It isn't long before I catch a good one and as the wave lifts me, my spirits rise too. 



Music and Loss.



'Does she think she's the only woman ever to have lost her husband?'

The resident of the pretty village where Bob and I used to live spoke tetchily. All that going about with a face like a wet weekend and bursting into tears in the street had clearly made him and one or two other people uncomfortable. And let's face it, when confronted with a sobbing woman, what on earth do you say? What do you do?


When I hear the words, I want to crack a tasteless joke about how careless it was of me to lose him, but how easy it is to mislay something. Only the other night I left my mobile phone on a bench at the pub. But I also want to shriek, 'Yes. That's exactly what I think. I also think that nobody but nobody has ever felt this kind of awful grief. This wrenching pain, this terror of the future. This dreadful hopelessness.


A self centred reaction, certainly. But that's grief for you. And when the clever funny good looking chap who you'd adored for several decades and with whom you'd assumed you'd grow old happily, dies very suddenly, it really does take the wind out of your sails. And it takes more than a few weeks to pull yourself together and crack on.


During my second session at the choir I have joined, something odd happens. We are singing and harmonising and suddenly there is something about the sweetness of the harmony that makes my throat sting and swell so that singing is impossible. Feeling a fool, I leave the room, teary eyes down, still clutching my song sheet. I lock myself in the loo and sniff and sob for a few minutes. I curse my lack of resilience, two and half years after Bob's death. Why? Why? I don't even know the bloody song. Hearts in a jar or something.


When I return, it's tea break time and nobody takes much notice of me, although a couple of  people glance at me and smile. I take my seat again and pretend to check my phone (although there's no signal.) A woman near me leans across. 'It was me leaving the room a couple of weeks ago,' she says softly. I look at her questioningly. 'Music gets you like that every now and then,' she says.

Later, someone else tells me that the woman's husband died five years ago. So now it's official. I am not the only woman ever to have lost her husband.


When I get home, I light the wood burning stove in my bedroom so that I can fall asleep watching its glow. And I put on Bob's old cashmere sweater over my pyjamas, because for the first time in months, it's a little chilly. Then I snuggle into bed and think of him, and I try to believe that he really is never coming back.


And another.

I made a table

Making space and tables

A cloud of scented talcum powder makes me cough, and a large bosom belonging to the woman next to me smacks me in the face as she turns to investigate my splutterings. Staggering slightly, I accept her fulsome and charming apology and drag on my swimsuit. Note to self, avoid changing room for 15 minutes each side of the aquaerobics class.


I envy them their camaraderie. They shout and laugh and squawk at each other, like a clutch of happy hens, filling the changing room with well intentioned noise and clutter, cheerfully towelling and anointing their splendidly lush bodies. I feel rather as if I am in a latter day Reubens painting.


'How's your husband?' enquires one. The concern in her voice brings a lump to my throat. 'Not so good this week,' nods her neighbour. Then she leans closer, smiling. 'But the hospice staff say he's a perfect gentleman. Even apologises when he farts!.' The two of them laugh uproariously and the lump in my throat grows and rises at this unselfconscious stoicism.  


I swim doggedly, paying attention to my recently learned technique. Finish the stroke, point the toes, listen to the water. Soon it'll be time to increase my thirty two lengths by another four. I spend ages in the shower - possibly longer than I did in the pool - shaving my legs, deep conditioning my hair, generally taking advantage of the plentiful hot water.


Back on the boat, I sit at my desk and surrender to thoughts planted by the word hospice. A year ago, a few weeks before my sister died, a year ago, the move from hospital to hospice signalled the official end of hope.

She was funny and sharp, my sister. And although she was 51 when she died, I always thought of her as about 17. She made me think of a pixie. Pretty, waif slim, agile, restless. And very good at Riverdance – especially when she'd had a couple of drinks.


The last time I saw her, I worried that she would spill the mug of black coffee she was holding and burn herself. She was irritated by my neurotic flapping and told me so. I hugged her goodbye and said I'd see her in a week or so. I needed to go home and check that my boat was still floating, I said.


A few days later there was a flurry of messages and while I was making arrangements to come back, she died. When I got the phone call, my immediate thought was of when, as I was preparing to read my piece at Bob's funeral, I scanned the people around me, searching for her face. I saw her and said her name and she picked her way towards me, gliding through the crowd like a dancer, to stand beside me.


Another person to inhabit the crowded space inside my head. But these days I notice that there's more room. It's as if to start with, grief insists on taking up  all the space, bloated and unyielding. And then, as time does the thing that people love to tell you it'll do, grief goes on a diet. It slims and shrinks. It still cuts and bites, often when you least expect it. But it becomes more accommodating. Grief moves over.


With this in mind, I channel my inner Bob and, (with a little help) I make a table for my beautiful boat. And then, using the golden propellers left in a corner of my boat's engine room, I make another.


Food and love.

My lovely daughter worries occasionally, that I am not eating properly.


Today has been fraught with thoughts of pointlessness. What is the point of me? Accordingly, I have not eaten properly and as early evening sunshine floods my living space, I resolve to correct this.


I chop an onion and some tired looking carrots and sizzle them in a little olive oil. I rummage in the storage unit rescued from Bob's workshop, which doubles as a seat, and find a tin of tomatoes and some red lentils. I dump both in the pan and add a lot of smoked paprika. Stirring the mixture, I decide it looks a bit too red and I slosh in some Tamari soy sauce. Now my meal is a kind of rich terracotta. A good boat colour.


Half an hour later, I sit down to a bowl of smoky dal-ish soup, topped with nutritious yeast flakes and plenty of pepper. It is surprisingly delicious and I feel almost smug. I am reminded of a radio interview I heard recently with activist and food writer Jack Monroe, when she talked about easy, few ingredient recipes and self love. Here is a force for change, I think. I make a note to buy her new cook book. Cooking with bootstraps or something.


I take a photo of my food and send it to my lovely girl, with the caption, 'Nutritious and yum.'


Ten minutes later my phone burps and I am rewarded with a smiley face and a 'Looks delicious, Ma. Well done!' The few words are soaked in warmth and love and I remember with a jolt that there is a point to me.

I finish my soup and eat a banana.


Sunset sky

Angry, or sad?

The man astride the bicycle in front of me is pale with anger. His face is 3 inches from mine and I can see the beads of sweat on his top lip. Rage is making him quiver and twitch. Quietly horrified, I try to remember my punch bag sessions of long ago. Step back and to the side and bring the whole body weight round as you punch. But I'm not wearing gloves. It'll hurt.


Snarling, he yanks his bike away from me and rides off, up the riverside trail, preparing to turn again and circle me once more, for another verbal assault. This has been going on for ten minutes or so. Ever since I called his teenage son a cheeky little fuck. Mistake. Wrong. I know. But when the boy responded to my request that he use his bicycle bell - and not run me over, he was rude. Very rude. And the red mist that is never far away, plummeted on and around me at speed. My bad luck that his dad turns out to be a few yards ahead and really really doesn't like people swearing at his son. Even though, as I tried to point out, I wasn't actually swearing at him.


The angry dad demands to know who the fuck I think I am strutting around as if I own the place. I tell him that's just the way I walk - I'm dance trained. And then my one swear word is rendered almost benign in contrast with the stuff he comes out with. He is well spoken, which makes his words more cutting. More intimidating.


Eventually, just when my traitorous bottom lip is starting to wobble uncontrollably, he shouts 'You paedo!'. This last insult is so ludicrous that I laugh, and my bottom lip miraculously stabilises. Enough, I decide. Turning away from my aggressor's furiously twisted features, I see that the owner of another houseboat, moored just off the little beach to the side of the trail, is working on the deck, with a mate. I shout, asking them to come over and help. By the time they have jumped down onto the beach and crossed to the trail, the lycra clad thug has cycled off.


Over a restorative mug of tea, we discuss the extreme reaction which seems  more than natural parental protectiveness. 'You shouldn't have called his kid a little fuck,'  says one of my rescuers, gently reproving. I agree. 'If he comes back, I won't hit him,' he tells me gravely. I am glad to hear this. 'We'll just talk it over,'  he says reassuringly. I nod doubtfully.


After fifteen minutes or so, I thank my boat dwelling knights, and I and my borrowed dog set off home, fairly confident that the coast is now clear. The teenager probably tired of watching his dad terrorise me and persuaded him to come home for tea. I walk faster than usual, casting nervous glances over my shoulder. My boat has never felt like such a refuge and I hear myself sighing with expelled tension as I slide the heavy door shut. I resist the urge to bolt it and content myself with pulling down the shades landside.

Who said 'I sat with my anger long enough until I learned that its name was grief.'? They may well have had a point. I pour myself an early evening glass of white wine and think about what happened. How angry the dad was. And how angry I once was - and still am, a lot of the time. With people who don't seem to know the right thing to say, who behave in a way that I find difficult. Who are still alive. Why are they still here?


I sip my wine and watch the incoming tide creep towards my boat, and I wonder if the angry dad's wife has recently died. And then I notice that the sun has come out in time to promise a rather lovely sunset. So I take my wine outside to the top deck.


 I settle myself on a bean bag, with a fluffy rug around me and as I watch the sun bleed red across the sky, I think that although Stephen King says you should wait 7 weeks before returning to your first draft, 4 weeks might be enough. Emboldened by alcohol, I decide - albeit guiltily - that I will flout the advice of an undisputed genius and get back to it without further ado. And I smile and drink more wine.


Bright and colourful.

Brightening and lightening.

 Even when the wild nightly sobbing finally abates, grief is always there, crouching in the corner like a virulent toad. Ready to lumber over and clamber aboard, tugging at limbs, clogging the throat. Heavy, ponderous, yet unpredictable.

At other times, my mood is buoyant, carrying me through the day and evening, poking fun at my melodramatic declarations of those early days.

'I will never laugh again. Never dance again,' I declaimed tearfully, like a latter day Ophelia, forcing the unfortunate recipient of my woes to gently argue that I might one day feel differently.

And then there's the boat. Its cool blue and white exterior gives way, with a hefty push of the heavy sliding door, (not too hefty, or the bloody thing leaps off its runners. And while I did once manage to lift it back on my own, it cost me more in osteopath fees than a new door would have set me back..) to a room made daylight bright by windows all around.

I've tried to create a space that its impossible to be unhappy in. Of course it doesn't work all the time, but it's often surprisingly effective in the spirit lifting department. Smooth boards, glowing satisfactorily with the patina of age covered by bright rugs. A low sofa dotted with multi coloured cushions, red blue and yellow crockery stacked neatly, strings of fairy lights, a small woodburner, jugs of sunflowers - all help boost the psyche. There's only space for one bookshelf, but it's crammed with my favourite books. An omnibus of fairy tales from my childhood, the works of Dickens, (not quite complete), a book on mushrooms, a Screwfix catalogue and woodworking manuals cosy up to several much loved paperbacks by Maeve Binchy, Joanna Trollope and Jojo Moyes. Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent and My family and other animals are there for on tap laughter, and Stephen King's On Writing keeps me from wandering too far from my writing path. As does the view from my desk, across the river. My lovely desk which cleverly turns and opens like a transformer toy, into a long narrow table that seats eight.

 I love the smallness of my surroundings. It's the thing I like best about my funny new life. Small somehow makes things seem manageable, even when at the same time they are overwhelming.


Wheelhouse kitchen

Trouble at sea

Living on a houseboat is NOT fun. Or at least it's only fun sometimes, when everything is working. If it's also warm and sunny, that's a bonus, but these days, having power, water coming out of the taps and a loo that flushes, all at once, is enough to make me feel life is definitely worth living.

My brain is scrambled and fried from trying to understand the workings of batteries, battery charger, inverter, solar panels, generator, and how they all link up, coaxing one another to provide a living environment that works. Red and green lights wink across the gloom of the engine room and cables snake in and out of the machines and boxes, sending messages that all too often become confused, missing the recipient and causing shutdown. Clutching a torch, I clamber through the tiny door, bent double to avoid bashing my head on the lumpy metal ceiling. I shine my light around, slowly, carefully, examining plugs and sockets and connections, trying to see if there is an obvious problem causing the current loss of power. A loose cable, perhaps, or a tripped switch. Something that I could fix myself, without having to once again run bleating to one of the helpful boaty blokes in the vicinity. I mutter to myself - again - that I need to learn more about all this stuff, so that I can be more self sufficient. I'm a reasonably intelligent woman, I tell myself. I should be able to cope with a bit of extra knowledge. I curse the years I spent wilfully ignoring any practical skills. I can hear myself trilling, 'I can't even change a plug!' As if it was something to be proud of. 'I have other qualities, I'd say. Or 'We have a good division of labour.' But that was when I thought that the person who always did all the practical stuff was going to be there for ever. Which makes me wonder...am I really that intelligent - when I apparently didn't have the brain capacity to acknowledge that one day I might be on my own? I wonder too, if my brain has become addled. Cooked and twisted by the myriad of emotions that make up grief. Anger, frustration, bewilderment, denial and more, leap in and out of my consciousness on a daily basis - even now, more than two years on, when, according to some, time should have done its job and healed my poorly psyche. Would a brain scan show that where once I was capable of logical thought, my brain is now incapable of working out simple equations? Was it, from the second I began blowing breath into his lifeless mouth, destined to become mushily impractical?

Once, when the boat loo wouldn't flush and there was no water coming out of the taps, I managed to locate a melted fuse, change it and hey presto, everything worked again. And for a brief period, I felt invincible. I was queen of the river. I phoned a friend and I proclaimed my cleverness on the family whatsapp group. I could fix stuff. There was hope.



top deck

Buying the boat.

It's a project.

It's a distraction.

It's exciting.

It's a fresh start.

It's so funny.

When I bought my houseboat, people voiced all kinds of opinions. At the time, exhausted and reeling from the sudden death of my husband, I could barely be bothered to say that it was none of those things. It was just a cheap house. Selling our house and business and paying off debt left me just enough for a small house or flat. But a houseboat was half the price, and I wanted some financial breathing space.

Two years on, new acquaintances ask me if I've always wanted to live on a boat. And now that grief's claws have become less sharp, and I have a bit more energy, I tell them no - and that it's just a cheap house. Sometimes I see disappointment clouding their hope that I will spout starry eyed childhood longings of a life on the ocean wave. But the idea of being surrounded by water horrifies me. Occasionally I give the huge red engines squatting below decks a brief pat as I edge past them on my way to check the water tanks or battery. Even though you're currently useless, you're still pretty, I tell them. And maybe one day, someone else will hook you up and switch you on.

The thought of my house lurching through the waves is pretty terrifying, but also funny. I imagine sitting on my top deck, on a beanbag, glass of wine in hand, while the crew rush around down below, tightening and loosening ropes and shouting a lot. Or maybe I'd be at the wheel ,skipper's cap tilted fetchingly over one eye, waving to landlubbers left on shore and half heartedly consulting maps and charts in an effort not to steer into the path of other sea craft.

I worry that my small space isn't big enough for two. Even though there's only one of me. I love my futon sofa and its bright cushions, but at the same time I disapprove of it because I know that he would have hated its low seat. He would have grumbled that it made his back ache, irritably chucking the cushions aside. Where could we put the tv, I wonder, as I balance my phone on my knee and prepare for another Netflix session. He loved a bit of telly - and he thought the screen on the laptop was small.

The river is tidal, so at least half the time my beautiful boat sits, flat bottomed on the mud. When the tide comes in, it creeps across the banks, gurgling into gulleys and filling dips and holes, swirling around the feet of the seabirds who stalk, grumpy faced across the mud. I often watch it, mesmerised by its advance and welcoming a way to lose a couple of hours. Sometimes I drink wine while I watch and sometimes, if the tide is a high one, the boat lifts and sways, which I enjoy, but which also scares me. What if the mooring ropes break? I check them. What if the boat leaks and sinks? It is sound. Steel and pre-purchase vetted.

I can hear his voice teasing me and telling me everything's fine. I can feel his knobbly fingers tickling mercilessly. I wish he was still here, reassuring me, making me laugh, hugging me, telling me everything is fine.We had so many plans. We would have had such fun on my boat.