Loneliness - Moving On

by Andrew Foote

Chapter 21

I woke first, no big surprise there, so I got dressed and took the dogs out for a run.

Saturn was gone which was a good indicator that they had managed to sort their problem. Strange though, I missed them.

For some reason I had always believed that professional boatmen looked down on us residential and pleasure cruisers but we'd been accepted and I didn't get the feeling it was just because we'd helped them out of a hole.

Jus was still in bed so I set about brewing a pot of tea which gave me the opportunity to look around the boat and God was it in a mess!

Eight days of continuously being on the move hadn't allowed time to do any cleaning and so as the weather forecast was rubbish for the rest of the day, I decided that it was time to take stock and give the boat a once-over.

Tea brewed and as I took the mugs through to the bedroom so Jus woke…… sort of.

"What's the time Alex?"

"Half past and time you got up."

"Oh. Not late then?

Wait a minute?

Half past what exactly?"

"Eight. Still time you got up and especially after keeping me awake last night!"

"Sorry. Was I snoring?"

"No, you were totally out of it but touching me up did the damage right enough!"

Jus giggled.

"I remember that but I didn't mean for it to keep you awake honestly."

"Bullshit! You know that sometimes you only have to look at me and I'll pop one let alone you groping me!"

"Can I make it up to you?"

"Yes. Today is cleaning day. I'll do the vacuuming and polishing and you get to do all the shitty work like cleaning the hob, oven and grill."

"That's not fair! I mean it was only a little grope?"

"A grope is a grope in my book but if you're a good little boy and we get everything done by lunchtime, I'll buy you a meal at the New Inn and then we can spend the afternoon in bed together."

Lunch was good, the afternoon so very much better!

It had started to rain and with the boat locked down we headed for bed.

It was times like these that the innocence of those early yet faltering days reappeared. We were flying in the face of the law just being in bed together but it didn't seem to matter somehow, we just wanted each other in a way that most people thought abhorrent however it was right for us.

It wasn't all about getting off, this was all about each other and how much we could ensure that we managed to transmit our love for each other without it becoming a fuck-fest…… well not too much of one anyway!!!

Jus woke at 5.30am and sliding from our bed, showered and dressed then made his way outside and filled the water tanks leaving me to sleep…… well that was the theory but as the water tanks were situated under the well deck, they would be if you think about it. Well.....? Water? Anyhow the noise of pouring water woke me with the undeniable urge to take a piss.

I stood in front of the toilet and peered out of the porthole and noticed that the rain of the previous afternoon had given way to a still but misty morning, one tailor-made for cruising.

Still stuffed from the meal of the night before, we ate a light breakfast and once the dogs had been exercised we made our way down the Buckby lock flight and the long haul down through Blisworth and the beautiful village of Stoke Breuerne.

Here was our next stopping-off point and a chance to show Jus one of the most picturesque canalside villages in the country.

In most cases villages grew towards canals but here, the village was literally built around the canal making it appear like a Cornish fishing village complete with pubs, café's, shops and an extensive working wharf.

By the time we arrived it was late afternoon and as we edged our way down the cut I was beginning to think we wouldn't find anywhere to moor due to the number of boats but then we were hailed by an old boy, obviously a boatman who was leaning up against the cabin of his boat smoking a clay pipe.

"Pull in alongside us youngster. You'll not find anywhere this side of the locks this time of day."

"Thanks but we don't want to get under your feet. We can go down through the locks and find somewhere there."

"Nonsense! Any friend of Jack and Eddie's is a friend of ours so tie off with us for the night, beyond if you have a mind to stay."

We gratefully accepted his offer but then once we were secure I begged the question.

"How did you know that we knew Jack and Edward?"

"Simple. On your bow is painted a picture of Saturn and then the crown with the letter H meaning King Harrald. Those are their boats but here also are two crescent moons intertwined one with the other.

The moon is the friend of us working boaters as we work around the clock and so the moon not only tells us about the weather to come, it also shines a light showing us the way. Interlaced moons means a close bond, a special friendship if you will but the symbols painted after tell of the help you rendered them in their time of need. You are good people and those marks will be a sign to others to help you should you ever need it. When you have your boat repainted, get the man to paint around those because they will always bring you safely to your home port."

That evening after we'd cleared away the supper things, we sat out on the well deck each with a glass of wine and some snacks. Jus had his head buried in a book while I just watched the world go by.

For some reason I started thinking about something I'd heard on the radio a couple of days ago and that how the UK government had decided to adopt the American way of expressing large numbers. Why this popped into my head and why it should interest me was a mystery but my interest in all things mathematics made me realise that making the mistake of confusing the difference between a trillion as expressed the English way or the American could lead to massive calculation errors so I set about the task of cementing this new way of working firmly in my brain.

I went below, grabbed a pad of paper and a pencil then once back outside I began working it out.

In the UK a billion was seen as one million million whereas in America this figure was known as a trillion but which ever was you looked at it, it was an eye-watering amount so next I tried to put it into context using the American method of writing a trillion as 1,000,000,000,000 and applying it to something understandable.

Yes alright so I'm a sad act sometimes.

It was a simple exercise to work out that one million seconds of clock time worked out at, 11.6 days but what exactly was one year of clock time.

(60sec/min) x (60min/hr) x (24hr/da) x (365.25da) = 3.16 x 107 = 31,600,000 seconds.

Whoopee-do! Now I'm getting somewhere!

Okay then so how long is one trillion seconds in real time?

(1012 sec) / (3.16x107 sec/yr) = shit……..31,546 years!!

"Bloody-hell Jus!"

"Bloody-hell what?"

"Take a gander at these figures. That's totally unbelievable!"

Jus took the pad and frowned.

"Okayyyy? So why would anyone be interested in that?"

"Dunno really but we say stupid things like something is a trillion light years away without any understanding of how big a trillion really is but now you can wow all your friends by telling them that a million seconds is equal to eleven point six days whereas a trillion seconds is around thirty-two thousand years!! Sort of puts it into perspective doesn't it?"

"If you say so. Sometimes you are so weird as to be frightening Alex!"

"I'm not weird! There are practical applications as well."

"Like what for heaven's sake?"

"I'm working on it. Go back to your book and I'll show you when I'm done."

I took a mouthful of my wine and a handful of Cheesy Whatsits, Cheetos I think they're called in America and one by one I ate them until I only had one left. I studied it for a moment then went below to find a ruler.

Back outside I measured the Whatsit and roughly it came out as being four centimetres long with a diameter of one point five.

I called Jus over so I could demonstrate my practical application to him.

"Okay, so now we find ourselves with a problem, the sort of thing that must bother people on a daily basis.

Let's imagine you own two warehouses. In warehouse number one you have in storage one billion Cheesy Whatsits which you need to transport to warehouse number two. Please don't ask me why but my guess is that it happens all the time.

You have hired white van man to do all the leg work but before he can quote you for the job, he needs to know how many trips it'll take. Okay so far?"

Jus was almost wetting himself with laughter.

"Yes you idiot, carry on!"

"Good. Your average Cheesy Whatsit measures four centimetres in length with a diameter of one point five centimetres. Trust me on this, I've measured a few in my time.

Mr White van man's vehicle can carry a volume of about twelve cubic metres and so if we do the maths, one Cheesy Whatsit has a volume of…… that so if we multiply that by one billion which will give us the volume of your stash then divide that by twelve cubic metres we see that he'll have to make seven hundred and seventy-two trips."

"You're nuts, do you know that?"

"Quite possibly but if you think I'm going to attempt working out the average volume of a nut then you're very much mistaken, apart from anything else, most nuts are elliptical and I'd need a formula table in order to do the maths, so there!!"

"You really should get out more often! You are totally strange but I love you for it!"

"Do you reckon I should publish a paper on these results?"

"What? You mean one on just how odd you are?"

"Oh please and here am I trying to be serious while you're just being silly.

Justin Armstrong, I'm disappointed in you!"

"More wine vicar?"

It was very tempting to hang around Stoke Breuerne but in the event we elected to push on. I'd worked out that we could make the far side of Bletchley, the Southern tip of the new city of Milton Keynes and possibly make Soulbury locks by the evening. There was a canalside pub there and the navigation notes indicated plenty of moorings.

The trip was uneventful. The Grand Union Canal had been well maintained which made passage relatively easy and now we were starting to pick up other pleasure boats as well as working ones. This made life rather better for Jus as he didn't have to operate all the locks by himself and just as we were about to set out the next morning, we spotted one of these pleasure narrow boats coming up behind us with two boys running along the towpath windlasses in hand. Jus hailed them.

"Are you locking through?"

"Yes. Do you want to follow us in?"

"Please. We can do a joint ops which will speed things up."

We ascended the three locks at Soulbury then stayed in convoy with their families boat right up until we got on to the Regents Canal in London some three days later where they kept their boat.

This was great as finally we had the company of people of our own age and when we'd moored up for the day, games of footie and cricket were the order of the day. Cricket was a laugh as none of us had to field. We had dogs trained to do that!

The first night their folks invited us to a barbeque, the second night we ate on board their boat and the third night as they were going home the following day, we catered for them.

Peter and Aaron, the twin fifteen year old boys were great company but quizzed us about our relationship and how come it was we lived aboard.

We went through all the home tutoring thing, my parents, Jus' parents and Grandparents leaving out the true nature of our togetherness although I reckon the boys sort of guessed we were rather more than just good mates although to their credit, they never once touched on it.

By the time we said our goodbye's, addresses and contact details exchanged, we had four totally knackered dogs and two new friends.

It was a weird sensation locking through at Brentford. Three and a bit weeks on the canal system, narrow and shallow and then heading on to the tidal Thames?

Very scary!

The fulltime lock keeper was great. He passed on his advice and told us not to worry as he'd radio all commercial craft to keep an eye on us until we made it up as far as Kingston upon Thames and into non-tidal waters.

The journey was…… bouncy!

The breeze was up causing waves on the surface of the river that cascaded over the bow, drenching the well deck before disappearing down through the scuttles and over the side.

Jus took it well but declined my kind offer of taking the helm but he did a sterling job of providing cans of drinks and sandwiches until we reached Kingston where he promptly threw up over the side.

I called it a day here.

The next day we made it as far as Shiplake, the following day to Henley then the short hop back to Mapledurham the next.

As we neared our moorings I sounded the claxon. It was only supposed to be a bit of a fun greeting but then, from out of nowhere, my Dad came rushing from the house and stood on the pontoon to take our centre line. Why he should feel the need to do this wasn't immediately apparent but the worried look on his face scared me. We tied off and then he told us to get cleaned up and meet him on Casio.

Jus and I looked at each other and with both of us selfishly believing there had been a catastrophe up at the mill, did as we were asked.

We found my Dad sitting in the dinette, his head in his hands.

"A hello would've been nice Dad? What's the problem?"

"I'm really sorry you two but I've got some really bad news. I think both of you should take a seat and before you ask? There's nothing wrong up at the mill, alright?"

"So what's going on then Dad?"

He turned to look as Jus.

"Justin? Your Grandmother is seriously ill. She was admitted to hospital two days ago complaining of chest pains. The doctors ran tests to try and ascertain what the problem was and……..there's no easy way of telling you……..I'm sorry but at her request she's now back home……..it's here she wants to spend her final moments. Boys? Lady Eleanor is dying. She was diagnosed with having multiple cancer.

I'm so very sorry."

Jus grabbed my hand and I honestly thought he would break my fingers but being the fighter that he is, he managed to keep it together and way better than me.

"I need to see her Tim."

"Yes of course you do mate. Come on, let's all go up."

Lady Eleanor looked so peaceful. Sir George looked old all of a sudden.

"She's been asleep for the last twelve hours. I don't believe she has very long now."

How Jus kept himself from crying was a total mystery to me but he was calm and very subdued which sort of reminded me of that trip back to Down House, resigned to whatever the future held. He gave Sir George a hug then motioned to me to join him by Lady Eleanor's bedside.

We knelt on the floor where we took hold of her hand, his palm to palm with hers while I lay mine on top.

Jus spoke to her.

"Gran? This is Justin. Alex and I have just got home from our holiday and we're fine. I know you can hear me because I could hear Alex when I was asleep in hospital that time. I just want to say how much I love you, how much you mean to me and how much I wish I could've been a better Grandson to you but that's in the past now."

He seemed to run out of words as he began to weep so I took over.

Lady Eleanor? This is Alex. I second everything Justin said except I'm not your Grandson but instead you are my dear friend and one who I love and admire and always will hold a very special place in my heart. I love you."

A few minutes passed and then she opened her eyes and looked around the room.

"I've been waiting George but I'm being called now. My time has come and may God bless all of you." And with that she closed her eyes and smiled…… she was gone.

The next few days were agony. If Jus wasn't in tears then I was but then my Dad left for Heathrow to collect Mr and Mrs Armstrong off their flight.

Jus had declined to go with him saying that his parents didn't need to meet a gibbering wreck just as they landed and that he'd rather be with me working up at the mill.

I could empathise with his need for normality and order as I'd been there before when he disappeared from Down House but still, not to be in any hurry to see your parents after all this time?

His decision I suppose.

We didn't get much work done, we just stumbled around getting under everyone's feet and probably dragging people down so we reluctantly decided to go back to the house at lunchtime and face Mr and Mrs Armstrong.

Mrs Armstrong was very distressed but Mr Armstrong was just very subdued.

Gone it seemed was the bullish, arrogant man I had become used to and after the initial greetings where he even gave Jus a cuddle he asked if he could come down to Spook with us. He excused this by saying that it was most likely that Mrs Armstrong needed to spend some time with Sir George so that they could comfort each other so with that we walked down to the boats.

We sat in the dinette and drank coffee where Mr Armstrong demonstrated his skills at defusing awkward situations.

We talked about our being cut adrift, the journey up to Oxford and our recent holiday. He seemed genuinely pleased at our exam results and actually praised my Mum and Dad's teaching ability before again turning his attention back to Jus and me.

"So son, are you happy despite all those terrible episodes?"

"Yes father, more than you can imagine."

"And you Alexis? Are you happy?"

"Yes sir. I mean aside from the sad loss of Lady Eleanor, I can truthfully say all is well with my world."

"Well in that case, nothing else matters. You have gone through some really bad experiences that no one of your age…… no one at all come to that, should ever have to go through but you're safe and happy despite everything and that in turn makes me happy.

It's strange though. From everything that's happened there are some very positive aspects that resulted from it.

Both of you have matured beyond all recognition, your business, according to Tim, is doing very well and maybe you could take us on a guided tour while we're back. George tells me that you're not only manufacturing but also part of your premises is set aside for community things such as a licenced café and a crèche, formal gardens and a children's play area. All very forward thinking and more credit to you."

"We can't take all the credit father. A lot of it is also down to Tim and Grandfather plus we have a very loyal workforce and we actively encourage their input, not just when it comes to ideas for products but also how we develop as a business."

"None the less, people are led from the top and as you've obviously seen it right to include your staff in putting forward their ideas, which in itself is innovative and creative.

While we're on the subject of change, I think it's about time we stopped being so formal so none of this father rubbish Justin, I'd much prefer it if you called me Dad and as for you?" he said digging me playfully in the ribs,

"Please call me Gerald. I have the utmost respect, not only for you but also your parents so let us cut out all the crap and act like responsible adults."

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