Wednesday, 18 December 2013

I was BORN into a CATHEDRAL...

I was born into a cathedral of green water and weeds and light. My small world was bordered by hedges and fields rich with cow dung and hollow dark places, rank with nettle and dock, where archangels and kingcups grew and I was cradled by the sound of wind among reeds; the rush of glassy water in the sluices of the locks; the song of swans' wings in flight; and the wash of rain against a wooden cabin roof. It smelt of wet wood and anthracite and the smell of hot iron from the little Pithers stove that kept the cruel winters at bay and dried the bedclothes when the roof leaked. And then there was the smell of pigs and straw and paraffin and the rich, trouty, earthiness of when still waters are stirred.

The Kathy, Grand Union Canal, Rickmansworth
There were five of us aboard this clinker-built ark, called the Kathy, cobbled together from an open-topped lifeboat that had been salvaged from an old liner. The wood was rotten, but loved. The farmer, on whose land, it was moored kept threatening to break it up, but Mum and Dad just laughed; it was home and it was a good one. There was laughter there and warmth, even when the ice came and our world no longer rocked gently to the secret rhythms and movements of the dark canal waters. There was a port-hole by our bunks and Mum made drop scones in an old frying pan for friends dropping by. There were always friends dropping by.

First there was Mum and Dad. Then there was a cat, Kismus - who (later) would sleep with me on my pram, then my sister, Wendy, came and finally there was me. At 9.45, on a Friday morning right at the end of a wet April; it was the day when the farm's guard dogs were silent, I was born in the little cabin made and fitted out by Dad. Dad and Wendy waited on the canal bank hoping that the rain would hold off. Kismus was the first of our family to see me. The midwife plucked her up, saying that it is only right that she should see this new creature that had come into her life so that her nose would not be put out of joint. Dad bought a marble cake to celebrate.

Dad (looking splendidly bohemian and piratical), Mum, me and Wendy

Records show that there was a long-lasting system of low pressure hanging over the country that spring which made it very wet. Much later, Mum was to write:
"One of the aspects we enjoyed most about the boat was the feeling of close proximity with the elements without actually having to go outside. When it rained we could hear it pattering on the roof, giving a very cosy feeling and the sight of the raindrops falling on the water making patterns was so much nicer than seeing them fall on cold town pavements. The same with the wind, when it blew there was the gentle rocking of the boat, with the added chuckling sound of the water against the clinker built sides." 
Space was tight and sometimes, of necessity, even in the rain I would be outside, in the fields by the bank, tucked up in the pram with Kismus - on guard - sitting under it. Later, once a week, a friend of Mum's would collect us in her dinghy, I would be in a carry cot placed in the centre, and then she would row us upstream, to where she lived, for tea and cake in a narrow boat that was moored around the willowed bend, where swans swam with their signets, and that smelt of rush matting and oil lamps.

What did I stare at?
What captured my mind (young as it was) and my heart in those moments?
And do those things still stir me deep within?
What pleasures did I feel with the rain brushing the canopy of my pram, safe and cocooned while the elms sighed and the heron flew?
Is this why I am still entranced by the sound of rain against window or hood?
Is this why I breathe a little deeper at the sight of rings forming on still waters?
Is this why I still like to press myself up in the corner where the roof eaves drop on stormy nights and listen... and listen?

The cosy warmth of a wooden cabin, the smell of a hot stove, the light that spills from a hurricane lamp, the sound of water lapping against a wooden hull, moorhens swimming through green seas of duckweed, gnats dancing low over water, the slow creak of oars complaining in their rowlocks, the smell of locks and the rattle as the winding gear is released, the white fall of water... These are not memories. They are too old to be memories, too forgotten, too lost; pre-memories, impressions, stabs of emotion, feelings gauze-thin like dreams in the morning's light. But they are somehow still part of me, as strange flashes of recognition that disorientate me and strip me bare. Yes they are still there, for I hear their songs and hear their owl-like call. Not to an Eden lost, but to an Eden that still lives.