Sunday, June 21, 2009

Indirect, English and in a bit of a pickle

Now it's no great shakes to mention that narrow boating is pretty properly English, and the River Nene is heart of England, spires and squires etc and so forth.

Yesterday, we had one of the little downsides of Englishness, and got into a bit of a pickle with another boat. Such a disaster for Englishmen is this, that we even have to give it a foreign name: a contretemps.

The end of Friday, and then again the afternoon of Saturday, we'd ended up paired up with another boat going through the locks to mutual advantage. The other boat was skippered by rather a crisp, smart lady and her male companion. They were of a different social class to us. Not massively different, but enough to generate an edge of awkwardness, and just possibly suspicion.

The indirectness and diffidence of English-speak was a bit of a problem in the locks, especially above the sound of the engines. Nobody of course wants to give a direct order to another, nor be thought of as interfering in the other skipper's manouevres. As a result there was actually a good deal of mutual incomprehension - at practically every lock.

As a not-unrelated aside: practically the first thing the other boat's mate told me on the bankside was:- "My friend's the skipper. Erm, we're friends. We're not..., erm, ah... erm". Being the nasty brute that I am, and concerned to avoid misunderstanding (which is so easy to do), I often wonder should I clarify with: "Do you mean you're not sleeping with her?" I suppose you could go on and ask: "Does this mean that she is in fact available?"

Anyway: a little later on on Saturday afternoon, we rather got the impression that they would prefer to travel on their own. Leaving the lock first, Jim and I debated it: are we sure? What did they mean by saying: "You go on ahead" (it was in any event our turn to go out the lock first). Why had the other skipper made so bold as to give some (very good, as it turned out) advice as to how to avoid being knocked about in the lock 'when travelling on your own'?

Well we decided that they did want to be on their own. It cannot be denied that we did want to crack on and get to the pump-out near Northampton, and be ready for an earlier-than-expected rendez-vous with our admiral, Sarah on the Sunday.

We were just about to leave the next lock, when the other boat turned up. A cold chill ran through the blood. If they had wanted to hang back and separate, you'd have thought they'd have stayed out of sight until we'd left. Oh, sh*t.

Feisty skipper came bounding up the bank, I heard the word 'gall'. Stomped up to confront us with our miserable sh***iness. The 'F' word was used.

I suppose anybody can claim a misunderstanding, and it didn't cut any ice. No, siree. Fair enough: from her point-of-view, I'd have gone potty too.

We beat a retreat with that horrible combination of automatic, fight-ready adrenalin, and no small amount of shame.

For the whole passage up to the next lock we debated the rights and wrongs of the case, the handling of the upset, and what to do. The default position was of course: flee, and hope we didn't see each other again at close quarters. Should we try to make up by waiting at the next lock? Would that be giving in to the rather intemperate display? Would both parties feel far too awkward to see one another again?

We drove into the next lock still not really decided. Then: Oh bug*er - it's a mechanical gate. We can't leave them to do the mechanical gate. Can you imagine the fury you'd whip yourself into with each turn of the wheel?

We'd wait for them.

We waited ages. Doubts started to arise: perhaps they'd been so upset, they'd moored up. That fight-adrenalin was still there too. So* them, let's go.

When they turned up, we were most gratified to hear their surprise that we'd waited. They'd pootled along, little thinking we'd keep the gate open for them. Most gratifying, we had regained a little moral credit. Enough to allow us to speak, to express mutual sorrow over the incomprehension and misunderstanding. She and I wheeled the gate up and down together, a little joke was cracked about hands touching.

The genius of the English is that by the next lock, we were almost friends, and certainly more chatty than we had been before the fracas. No Sicilian feud here, and actually speaking more directly, and comprehensibly.

They've just gone past us a Cotton End, Northampton. We waved, chatted merrily and we quite miss our old pals now.


Anonymous said...

did you point out that you and Jim were only friends too?

Jill and Graham said...

Beautifully told; we can all identify with the situation