by Andrew Foote
It was my turn to tend the fire that night and that, plus the unseasonably mild weather had me sweating, so throwing caution to the wind, I slipped out of my jumper and shirt and removed my jeans. I settled into our sleeping bag and with Callum snoring gently, fell to sleep almost as soon as I lay down, not waking until I felt a hand running up my back underneath my vest.
"I'm sorry Ed but I've never seen you like this before, showering aside, and I needed to touch you like, properly and Oh My God, do you feel good!"
His gentle hands caressing me sent shivers running up and down my spine and no matter what he did next would've bothered me, but he left it at that, just held me close and cuddled me.
I drifted back to sleep, not waking until I heard the generator fire up.
I allowed myself time to come to terms with the fact that another day had dawned, but then looking at the tree and realising it was Christmas Day, I rolled out of our sleeping bags and went to retrieve my jeans.
Tiny saw me and joked,
"You look like you had some fun last night?"
"Sod you. It was warm, too warm for keeping these on."
"Hot more like! Don't let it bother you Ed!
Anyway, I smell coffee, you coming?"
I followed him out. Most of the boys were already outside sitting cross-legged on the ground, mugs in hand and talking, so Tiny and I found a space and helping ourselves to coffee, settled in to a conversation of our own.
"There's some sort of an event going on. Fucking loads of boats on the move.
What do you reckon it is?"
"Like I'm an expert!
Why don't you ask Callum?"
"I did but I didn't get his answer."
"What was that?"
"BCN Challenge or summat. Held every year or so he said.
I still don't have a clue what he's on about!"
"Nor me. Wanna go find out?"
"Yeah, why not! I'll just go and find Callum and tell him where we plan on going just in case he needs a hand getting stuff ready for lunch."
"Don't bother. He's saved you the trouble as it looks as if he's going out somewhere as well."
He trotted over to where we were sitting.
"I'm talking a stroll down to Farmers Bridge Top Lock and watch some of the boats go through. Fancy joining me? We might even make us some money in the process.
Here, grab these."
Callum held out two windlass's which Tiny and I took but questioned why.
"I'll explain while we walk."
"The BCN Challenge is held every year and lasts for twenty-four hours. The idea is that you have boats with crews that try to cover as many of the canals around Birmingham as possible, doing as many locks as they can and the one who has the highest score is the winner.
To make the most of it, these boats have at least four on board, sometimes six so as one crew sleeps, the other is driving the boat then after twelve hours they swap over. If we help them through the lock, it makes it quicker for them so they stand a better chance of winning.
Last year, me and Pip made almost sixty quid. Not bad for three hours graft!"
"Sixty quid is only like, ten quid an hour?"
"Sixty quid each Ed but we sort of cheated!
We latched on to just the one boat and took them up through the complete Farmers Bridge Flight so every lock was all ready and waiting for them.
We took a break then did it all over again for another boat and both skippers gave us fifty and that plus a couple more boats at the top lock netted us sixty each!"
Shame this challenge is only once a year!"
"Yeah, but come the summer, that canal gets busy as it's like a short cut down to Coventry. Hit onto a boat that belongs to old gits or maybe just someone on their own and do the same, saving them the arse-ache of getting on and off their boat all the time and you can easily make two-hundred in a day, and, because they're in no hurry, you're not busting your balls all day!"
"Now that is a nice little earner, but there's one small problem. I don't have a clue how to work locks."
"It's a piece of piss Ed. If I can do it then it'll be a breeze for you.
Let's go make us some money!"
Working as a team of three and after Callum explained how to go about things, we made fast progress for one boat, getting it up the entire flight of thirteen locks in double-quick time which netted us twenty quid each.
The method we used was, because the boats were climbing the flight, all three of us got the boat in to the lock through the double gates then once they were shut, I was left to open the paddles and flood it, open the top single gate to let the boat out, lower the paddle, shut the gate whilst Callum and Tiny set the next lock ready for the boat to enter and so on. They'd set the lock, I'd fill it and let the boat out as they prepared the next one.
Three boats, and each of us richer by sixty pounds, we made our way back, more than ready for our Christmas lunch.
Bubba had relished the opportunity to chef for all of us and to his credit, had exceeded all expectations. Clever use of our barbeque, old biscuit tins suspended over open fires as make-shift ovens provided the means to cook the meal of turkey breasts, boiled vegetables, roast potatoes and gravy, but the most ingenious use of resources was saved for the Christmas puddings.
Bubba had thought about how these could be steamed. They needed time to heat through and we didn't have a way to keep the temperature constant enough to do the business…… or did we?
We did, and he tied string around the pre-packaged puddings and lowered them into the cooling tank of the generator's engine which had a near-continuous temperature of seventy degrees Celsius.
There were no left-overs to get rid of except old Christmas Cracker paper, not even paper hats as most of us kept them on all day, finally burning them on our fire before turning in for the night which was very late by our reckoning as the games I'd brought from home had gone down a storm.
I must admit that I had been worried that those might be too young for our lot, but even Tiddly-Winks got a good thrashing.
Pictionary, Monopoly, Cluedo, just about everything was played and all returned to their respective boxes for use another day.
Most of the sweets were gone except for a tin Pip had kept back for Boxing Day and we still had enough cans of drink left over, so with that, and the generator silenced, we headed to bed.
I woke early.
Very early and despite feeling knackered, I got dressed and went outside to brew some coffee, but I forgot that the genny wasn't running so no juice for the electric kettle.
I went back inside and kicked it over, not caring if it woke anyone.
I needed coffee.
I sat by the canal and watched the many boats that were still taking part in the challenge, just day dreaming really and waiting for the caffeine to kick start my brain, but then one of the boats instead of passing by, slowed down to a stop.
The guy on the tiller hailed me.
"Nice sounding engine son!"
I turned to look at the puffs of smoke escaping from our exhaust stack then pointed to it.
"Are you talking about that?"
"Yes, that. Sounds really healthy."
"Are you serious? Sounds like it's about to die if you ask me."
"Not a chance! That's what a good Bollinder should sound like."
"Really? We only managed to get it running about a month ago so we had no idea whether it sounded okay or not."
"Take my word for it. She's a beaut so take good care of her. Those beasts are as rare as rocking horse shit and worth one hell of a lot of money."
"Like how much?"
"In good original condition? I'd say somewhere in the region of between eight and ten grand.
What's she running on?"
"Vegetable oil. We get given the spent oil from a café just down the street, we filter it and chuck in in the tank."
"Certainly seems to like it. Cheap too!
I best get going. Nice talking to you."
"And you. Good luck with the Challenge!"
I finished my coffee just as Callum appeared so back on with the kettle.
"Who were you talking to?
Fuck, I'm tired!"
"Some bloke on a boat commented on our engine."
"Oh yeah? Like, what did he say, scrap it?"
"No, actually he said it sounded really good. He even knew by the sound it makes, what make it is. He told me that Bollinder's should sound like that.
One other thing. He reckons it's worth a pissing fortune!"
"Not ours to sell even if we wanted to, which we don't."
"That's a point? Who does own this building?"
"Ronny. He owns next doors yard as well which is why we don't get any grief."
"Good to know.
What's on the first floor?"
"Search me. I don't even know where the stairs are unless they're next door, but anyway, I've never heard anyone up there.
What had you planned for today Ed?"
"I was thinking I really ought to go and see my mother. I mean she probably doesn't want to see me but I really should make the effort if only once."
"Where is she?"
"She's in the secure psychiatric wing at Good Hope."
"Not far then. We could take a short cut down the towpath past where we were yesterday. That would lead us down to Aston quicker than going by road."
"We? You mean you wanna tag along?"
"Yeah sure, unless you don't want me too?"
"Actually, I could use some moral support, so if you really don't mind?"
"I want to come with you. You shouldn't have to face that all by yourself, and anyhow, you're my boyfriend and that's what boyfriends do isn't it?"
"I could get to like being your boyfriend if that's the way you're going to treat me!"
"Yeah well…… I could do so much more for you but……"
"I know Callum but just take it steady. I want but I don't want…… I'm just not sure about, you know, having sex with another boy."
"It wouldn't be sex. I'd like to call it making love, but it doesn't matter 'cos I'm not about to go pushing you into stuff you don't wanna do.
C'mon, let's hit Ronny's and get us some breakfast."
By the time we made it as far as the lock flight, most of the boats had already gone through leaving only the riff-raff and cider junkies wandering around.
"Just ignore them Ed, they're harmless enough. They look and smell like shit but then who are we to go throwing stones. Fuck only knows what tales they could tell if we hung around long enough to listen."
"I know but it's really sad don't you think?"
"No, I don't think. We all of us have choices, take you as an example.
You didn't have to leave home? You chose to. Me? Yeah, I had choices but I always promised myself that no matter what, drugs and booze were never going to play a part in my life, but then you have these blokes. They could go to the Social Services, find a hostel, find a job but they can't be arsed, instead they beg on the streets and get wrecked on the proceeds."
"Okay already! So I made a bad choice and one that, while you're on the scene will never happen ever again!"
"Whoo Callum? Don't be so touchy!"
"I mean it Ed. I'm doing my best to em…… court you here and I'm never going to win you if I go getting shagged by all in sundry am I? I'd rather go without than run the risk of fucking this up!"
"Oh shit. No pressure then?"
"Fuck off Ed! I was trying to be serious!"
"I know, and I appreciate it more than you'll ever know and, by the way, we're together already so to use one of your favourite expressions, shut the fuck up!"
Callum giggled and with arms around each-others wastes, we walked on.
"Can I see Mrs Anderson please?"
"And you are?"
"I'm her son, Edward Anderson and before you ask, this is my em, boyfriend, Callum Lee."
"Wait here please, I think the staff nurse will need to talk to you."
Ten minutes later found us sitting in an office together with a rather attractive nurse.
"Edward? I'm not so sure this is a good idea. Your Mum is mentally highly unstable, given to violent mood swings followed by very emotional outbursts. Sometimes she seems rational, other times she just shuts herself away from reality so I don't want you to go upsetting yourself."
"Thanks and I appreciate what you're saying, but Mother hasn't been like my Mum for a couple of years now so I think I'll be able to cope."
"Well, if you're sure.
We have CCTV monitoring her room so if there're any problems, then we'll be there like a shot but we don't monitor any conversations.
Just bare in mind what I've just told you, you might not like what you find."
"Hello Mum. I thought I'd come to see how you're doing."
My mother was sitting down and gazing out of the window, not that there was much to see except for high-rise apartment blocks and industrial units.
She turned and looked at me for a moment before resuming her original pose.
"Oh, it's you. What do you want?"
"Yes well, it's nice to see you too. I just told you, I've come to see how you are."
"Well now you've seen, why don't you leave me alone."
"Because…… because you're my mother, you carried me for nine months, went through the pain of giving me life, I'm your son for fuck's sake, that's why?"
"There's no need for filthy language, I know who you are and for what it's worth, whatever debt you mistakenly think you owe me is paid."
"Yeah, okay but I think we've gone past the point where you can tell me what I'm allowed to say or do, you abdicated that right the moment you hooked up with that Vincent."
She ignored that comment but changed tack.
"Who's that boy you've got with you?"
"This is Callum and he's my boyfriend, like you're really interested!"
Like father, like son.
What a disappointment you are."
"And I should be proud of you? You shit on my life, abused and torment me, find yourself an animal to live with who ALSO beat me up, busted up everything I owned, smashed up our home and pumped yourself so full of drugs and alcohol I could hardly recognise you?
Get a fucking life mother?"
There was almost no response. My mum rocked herself back and forth but then turned to me.
"I think you'd better go now. I don't want to see you again, do you understand?"
"So that's it, is it? Go away and pretend nothing is the matter, pretend I never had a loving family?"
"I have no recollections of those times. Now is now, here is here, and here's where I will die.
Go and see the Matron, she has something for you, and while you're there, tell her I NEED MY METHADONE!! NOW GET OUT AND DON'T EVER COME BACK!!"
Callum lead me to a quiet spot behind the bandstand in Aston Park overlooking Aston Villa's football stadium where I cried…… then bawled my eyes out.
Callum said nothing but let me get the negativity out of my system then once I'd calmed down, he gave me a cuddle then suggested that we made tracks for home and some hot black coffee.
It was late by the time we were all bedded down for the night, obviously the party spirit had lasted through Boxing Day, but tomorrow would be business as usual whatever 'usual' meant for us, and to be perfectly honest, I really didn't want to know what these kids got up to.
Sometimes one of them would disappear for a couple of days then return with stories of being arrested for some minor crime, taken to court, put into care before promptly escaping. Some would disappear never to be seen again, maybe opting for life within the care system, maybe moving to a different city, who knows, but then I had my own future to think about and perversely, that of Callum's as I wasn't going to abandon him to life as a rent boy. I felt things for him, a closeness and affection I'd never experienced for another person before.
Sleep finally overtook me not waking until eight the following morning with Callum giving me a shake.
"Got you some coffee sleepy-head. Want anything for breakfast or shall we go to Ronny's a bit later?"
What's the weather doing?"
"Pissing it down it you really wanna know, plus the wind has backed to the north east so I reckon we'll get snow later."
"Footprint problems then?"
"Nah, I don't think so, but we might talk to Ronny to find out if he's happy for us to make up a proper door rather than that sodding hole in the wall. If the temperature really does decide to fall, it'll be impossible to keep the place even slightly warm what with that draught."
"Double edged sword. It'll stop the draught but an open invitation for people to come snooping around."
"I've got a combination door lock so we can come and go as we please, the regular lads can have the code, but it'll keep the riff-raff out. Sorted!"
"We are the riff-raff or had you forgotten."
"Alright smart-arse. It'll keep the other riff-raff out!"
Changing the subject? When we get down to Ronny's, I ought to look at that letter that Matron gave me. I can't imagine it's like good news but she seemed to think it was important."
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