A Peroxide Shade of Grey

“So you a couple then?”

The inevitable question of Viv and me, as we are both in our late fifties and look like we might be.

It comes as we’re side-by-side with another boat, in the lock at Denver Sluice. It’s a deep lock, cavernous, with enormous guillotine gates each end to stop the tide flooding through into the River Great Ouse. We’ve just pushed up, full throttle, against the tide of the Bedford River that goes straight and direct to Earith. The tide’s not as high as yesterday’s as the Springs wane with the moon. It feels like an achievement, to pull into the lock without mishap, without bumping their boat or worse. (The evening before we’d pulled in behind them to moor – very carefully – even though they hadn’t left enough space, so we had nudged them. He’d emerged some minutes later and grumbled about the ‘terrific bump’ we’d given them. I’d exclaimed my denial, with a justified sense of pride, and asked him to move his boat on a bit, which he’d done, now friendly. It doesn’t do to apologise.)

Viv was in the bow, alongside the woman on the boat; I was at the tiller, chatting to the bloke. Viv had asked if she lived on board. He did, she didn’t, ‘but I come for the voyages,’ she giggled.

Viv explained that no, ‘that’s Frankie; she’s married to Peter and he would be joining us for the weekend on Friday;’ she was married to Sally, who lived in Norfolk.

The turn to the personal invited an exchange of information. The woman stage-whispered something, Les Dawson style.

“Sorry,” Viv apologised. “I didn’t catch that.”

“He’s the master; I’m the slave,” she repeated, audibly this time.

We couldn’t hear any of this, the ‘master’ and I, a boat’s length away down the lock. Viv covered her surprise and said something non-committal, not sure if she wanted to hear any more, but definitely intrigued.

“That’s right. He’s the master. He thinks he’s in control, but I know better!” She chortled. “We’re into BDSM.”

The woman was in her early sixties, with peroxide blond hair pulled back carelessly into a pig tail – a strange shade of grey. She was buxom and jolly. He looked like Jeremy Corbyn.

Later, as we drove away, with them in pursuit (or so it seemed), we googled BDSM. We had got the SM bit, but weren’t sure what the BD stood for. We know now. And you’ll know too, shortly, I’m sure, if you don’t know already, as you turn to Google. You don’t have to – there’s a community out there, or so Wikipedia claims, of folk into all sorts of bondage and domination.

I felt rather innocent. And happy to stay that way.

Narrowboats offer a surprising degree of freedom. You’re always on the move so there’s no neighbours to gossip, only strangers to tell. And once you’re on board, you retreat into a private space, most of it under the water line. Who knows what goes on in all those boats moored alongside the river and canal banks throughout the land? We moor up at Ely four hours later and find ourselves speculating, as we wondered if they would catch us up. I somehow didn’t want to meet them again. When you receive information like that, it sticks in your mind. Rather unpleasantly, I found, as I controlled my thoughts. I found myself, now and then, starting down a lubricated slippery slope that I didn’t want to slide.

It’s a potent privacy that narrowboats offer. Each boa,t a subculture. A way of getting away from normal routines and indulging the wayfaring instinct that travellers know, and creating your own purpose. Stepping off the quay, out of normality and onto the water where things are submerged and flow at different speeds and temperatures, the deeper you go.

I wonder at the numbers who live aboard – whether anyone knows. Perhaps that’s a question for More or Less.

Paul might have some idea. Paul’s the lock keeper at Salter’s Lode. He’s been there 25 years now. He went on to talk me through the hazards of this tidal lock as we waited for the water to drop enough for the boat to have clearance under the guillotine. I asked him if the sandbank was still there, on the approach to the Denver lock. We’d almost grounded on it last year. He said it had been dredged, so to head straight into the lock, or moor at the pontoon. He grumbled about the authorities – how he kept asking them to provide a map of the river. ‘There’s a tree halfway along on the Left, so stick to the Right. They won’t provide a map’, he said. That’ll make them liable. ‘Last year I saw a boat that almost went over. It was coming down on the tide and turned, as you have to do, across the flow. It got caught and almost rolled. I thought it had. I thought they were goners. So did they. Screaming in fear they were. The water came up to the windows, imagine that. My whole body reacted with the shock’, said Paul. Not much shocks him. ‘It’ll take a death for them to sit up and do something. And then it’ll be to spend tens of thousands getting in consultants who won’t have a clue.’

He waved as we did the turn out of the lock and up stream.

Wednesdays must be his day off. Because there he was, as Viv and I did the charity shops in Ely, coming out of Scope with his missus. (His gate into the Lock-keeper’s house says ‘No Parking. Wife Grazing’.) I didn’t say hallo. Days off are days off.

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