My exit from the church didn't quite go to plan. I thought I was there until the 5th January. However, the e-mail I had sent asking for information from my two artist friends elicited the 14th January as the return date from their Antipodean odyssey. This was not at all expected and was, naturally, a sledgehammer blow to my excitement about going home to my boat. I also had a gig on the 14th, so I would now need to be extra careful about making sure I planned everything properly and had everything I would need in whatever place it was needed. P. had gone back to France on the 2nd. Three more days alone in someone else's house was bad enough, but bearable. Another nine days beyond that felt like a life sentence. A little solace was offered when I realised that the boiler engineer did not actually return to the UK until the 9th, which at least meant that I would be likely to be able to get the boiler working and the house warm for their return from their summer holiday. A return to the ice, fog, and freezing temperatures of the Fens under a high pressure system would not have been the most welcome of homecomings for them after their scuba exploration of the Great Barrier Reef.
I planned my exit carefully. It was, of course, unlike me. I would use the last couple of days to move my instruments and other paraphernalia out of the house. Having brought over several personal items to avoid me having to search through their cupboards I would also remove some of my cookware and unused foodstuffs. I would wash everything that needed washing on the penultimate day except the bottom sheet and pillow cases. The remaining bedding I could wash on the morning of departure after I had used it for the final time. I was sleeping under one of my own duvets (and two of theirs on top of that), so there was nothing that needed washing in any hurry there. I was also using my own towels and pillow, but there were other pillowcases on the remaining pillows so they would also go into the washing machine. Sorted.
The day before the day of planned departure my phone rang at just after eight in the morning. It wasn't yet warm enough to get up so I was still in bed reading "Jollity Farm: A History of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band", having crept back under the stack of duvets following morning matins with sooty vacuum cleaner and pellet boiler worship.
"Hi, we're back. I got the dates mixed up, what with the time zones and everything. We stayed in London last night and we'll be home this afternoon; probably leave here around lunchtime ..."
I got up then, spurred into action in the panic of a whole twenty-four hours less than I was expecting for executing my impeccable exit strategy. Everything went into the washing machine, I made some porridge and some ginger tea for breakfast, went outside to feed the tits, the robin, the pheasants five and Clayton Peacock and launched into the clearing up. By that time I estimated I had three or four hours to make the house welcoming. A quick check on the leaking stopcock (up three flights of stairs in the attic) revealed that my repair had held and the bucket I had left under the valve contained very little water. I packed my belongings into their cases and bags and began loading the van. With everything out of the way I could use one of the other vacuum cleaners to clean through the two floors I had been inhabiting for the past six weeks. Washing up, done and put away, fresh linen on the beds, but the guest bedroom worried me.
P. has a friend, well these days we both have a friend, The Divine Miss M. During a tragic 2016 she lost her mother, the stepfather she had known since she was eight (her biological father having passed away when she was very young) and the home she grew up in. P. felt that leaving her on her own for this first Christmas would be very difficult for her so we had invited her to stay. I'll admit that in the early days of our relationship, I was very jealous of the tiny amount of time I would have with P. I always found it difficult to share him. I had to come to terms with the fact that he and La Divine had been close friends and dancing partners for more than three decades. They saw each other most weekends and for many of these past few years they had plotted, planned, administered, choreographed and rehearsed some amazing and beautiful shows. The French for "show" isn't "le spectacle" for nothing. In the time P. and I have been together, I have known him and La Divine take their performances to various parts of Switzerland, France and Italy. I have always been very proud to see his work from the audience. Occasionally I was even roped into the performances as an extra dancer - men, as ever, being in short supply for such endeavours. One day I may go into the parting of the ways between them and the Swiss company with whom they worked. This isn't that day. Much as I have had to learn to accept and embrace their friendship I could not have seen her spend this Christmas on her own either. So, she had come to England with P. - her first visit to the U.K for forty-three years. If I were to intimate that my French is actually better than her English that would be an understatement. It still amazes me that there could be someone less fluent in a second language than me. She knows, "Hello," and not much else. Even after all these years she cannot pronounce my name except with a rolled r and a stress on the final syllable, so charmingly French. She is, however, incredibly patient with me and she is one of the few in P's circle of family and friends who I am sure does not judge me badly for having made such little progress with learning French during the past fourteen years. Our conversations are slow and my French falteringly constructed as I try to get my brain into the reverse gear demanded of a rosbif attempting to speak French while simultaneously trying to remember vocabulary, tenses, gender agreements, conjugations, declensions, pronouns and the occasional idiomatic phrase. I'm not sure, actually I know, that I don't understand much of what she says to me, but we manage simple conversations ... of a sort. I am pretty sure she appreciates my efforts, though I daresay she finds them highly amusing. She is, however, one of those French people for whom manners are everything. I shall never know what she really thinks of my efforts to speak French. It would not cross her mind to pass comment nor would she, I suspect, pass judgement.
I stated that the guest bedroom worried me. Try as I might during the final couple of weeks, after P. and La D. had rentréed, I could not air the room enough to clear the odour of her perfume. I hoped my friends would be able to cope with the aroma of expensive and persistent parfum even though I had washed everything I could find that might harbour the residue.
This tale is long enough already, but there is a little more to share. I expected my friends to be back by two in the afternoon at the latest. That would give me time to return my belongings to their usual scattered locations. I really needed daylight because I wanted to get some water back into the tanks on the boat. At 4pm they phoned to say they were just leaving London. Daylight was fading fast by then, so I hid the key, sending a text to say where, and set off to salvage what daylight I could. Filling up with water is an operation that uses three linked hosepipes from a standpipe in the farmyard to my water tank under the foredeck, a distance of some seventy metres. The bank is slippery and often muddy, the steps to my jetty often lose their fastenings to mock the unwary in their crazy realignments, while other people on adjacent moorings, which I have to cross, have bits of metal and wood sticking up at awkward angles. As much light as possible is advisable. I started to fill the tank, but being completely empty it wasn't even half full after an hour. I had to get back to the church, because there were things I needed to show my friends rather than leave for them to discover. I had also planned to go and perform at a new local open mic that evening where two friends were also debuting. Naturally all this delay put everything back. Rolling up the hosepipes I stumbled in the darkness into a metal spike on a neighbouring plot and still bear the remnants of the graze that ran the length of my shin, blood staining my trousers and running into my sock. My friends couldn't find the key, so I had to talk them to the spot, before I set off having only half filled the tank. They had wondered what state the house would be in when they arrived home. She thought I may have wrecked it and and had had to undertake a frantic last minute cleaning operation. He said that he didn't think I would do that. They both met me with smiles saying it was cleaner and tidier than when they had left. Thankfully it was also warm. That was my main concern for them. In their hospitable way they insisted I stay for something to eat and, of course, we talked and talked.
By the time I left them to take instruments and equipment back to my lockup it was gone eight. From there I went to the open mic just in time to see my friends, having completed their sets, packed up and ready to leave ... yes, the venue had been that awful and I was rather relieved I hadn't made it in time either to share their misery or to inflict the misery of my own performance on a small, but largely indifferent, audience. This audience was, it seemed primarily made up of the members of one family who had come to support a fifteen year-old BGT wannabe who was warbling her way through her extensive karaoke programme by the time I arrived. My songs of lust, blasphemy, death and dissent would probably not have been well received.
I got back to the boat after midnight which, after having been unlived in for the previous six weeks, was morbidly cold. I had set the fire earlier in the evening needing only a match to make it spring into life. Of course, the matches had taken umbrage, as had the kindling, newspaper and even the walnut shells I collected for starting up a fire. All had a moisture content that prevented a fire from catching. In shame I dug out a firelighter and broke the paraffin block into smaller pieces. I lit that instead, which eventually set fire to the kindling, the nutshells and the paper. The coal nuggets were the only part of the procedure that caught light in the expected order. I turned away from the fire, which had taken hold in the stove to fill the kettle for a warming nightcap. As the kettle began to boil I gradually became aware of a hissing sound. I turned and lost my footing on a wet galley floor. Water, a filthy black cascade of water, was actually pouring out of the stove and on to the floor. I screamed a few choice obscenities and pulled at the steps by the front door to reach the stop cock between the cold water tank and the main pump. I rushed to the back of the boat to switch off the power to the pump. Still the water kept flowing I grabbed towels and bowls, rags and a dustpan to scoop up as much of the evil black liquid as I could. It was quite a sight to see the fire roaring and water pouring through the ashpan under the grate and over the floor. It found its way through the nooks and crannies along the port side to emerge as a black pond spreading from under the washing machine in the galley and from there into and through the bathroom. Its progress was being checked slightly by the fitted carpet at the entrance to my cabin. It was a hell of a mess. Eventually the water stopped flowing, but I was still mopping up at two in the morning. Welcome home.