The Boat Girls

Free The Boat Girls by Margaret Mayhew

Book: The Boat Girls by Margaret Mayhew Read Free Book Online
Authors: Margaret Mayhew
boats bearing down on them and taking up what looked like most of the cut.
    â€˜Keep to the right,’ Pip reminded her. ‘But well away from the bank. Pass as close to them as you can.’ She leaned over and tweaked the tiller a fraction. ‘You can move over a bit more. You’ve got
loads
of room.’
    They passed within a few feet of the other motor, so close that Frances could see that the steerer had blue eyes when he turned his head briefly in their direction and nodded.
    â€˜How d’you do?’
    The remark had been addressed to Pip, whocalled back above the combined put-putting of the two engines. ‘How d’you do?’
    The butty, following at the end of its sixty-foot tow rope, took a while to reach them and the boatwoman steering repeated exactly the same terse greeting to Pip, who gave the same answer. No waves or smiles, just nods and those few words.
    They arrived back at the depot lay-by just before dark, and
Cetus
was returned to her berth beside
Aquila
. The wharf was empty now except for a dog or two, sniffing about. Boat doors were shut, hatches closed, portholes covered, no chinks of light showing for enemy bombers to see. Pip was going off to have supper with friends in Ealing and invited her along, too, but she felt too tired to eat and too tired to make the tedious journey all the way back to Aunt Gertrude’s flat.
    â€˜You can sleep on the boat tonight, if you like,’ Pip told her, apparently still fresh as a daisy. ‘We’ll stoke up the stove and you can make yourself some tea, or cocoa. There’s tinned food in the larder, if you get hungry. I won’t be late back.’
    When Pip had gone, she sat down wearily on the side bunk. There was no room to walk around, barely room to stand upright – not that she felt like moving. Her legs and arms were aching, there was a huge and painful bruise on her shin and it felt as though she’d done something nasty to her stomach, either from winding up the paddle or heaving at thelock gates. On top of all that, her brain was spinning like a top with everything she had been taught during the day, most of which she would never be able to remember.
    After a while, she roused herself to stoke the fire, put the kettle on the stove, take down a mug and the cocoa tin – all reachable without moving from the side bunk. Later, she cut a slice of bread and spread it with margarine and plum jam. Then she made up her bed with Vere’s padded sleeping bag and Aunt Gertrude’s pillow and blanket, and wound up her alarm clock. No point in setting it as she had no idea what time she was supposed to get up. She poured some water into the dipper, washed her face, cleaned her teeth and undressed – awkwardly in the cramped space – wriggling into her pyjamas before switching out the light. Pip had lowered her previously invisible bed out of a cupboard in the wall and her feet touched the end of it, while her head was stuck in the hole under the little overhead cupboard.
    The unwelcome thought crossed her mind that Vere had probably been right. Life on a narrowboat was going to be much less romantic and carefree than she had imagined. One short day had been enough to demonstrate that bald fact, let alone the three long weeks of training that lay ahead. She was aware that Pip had been watching her closely, noting everything she did, or failed todo. She could walk the plank without falling off, and maybe she would learn to steer all right, and maybe she’d be able to work the locks, eventually, but what of all the other tests and trials lying in wait that she didn’t even know about yet?
    She could hear men’s voices on the wharf outside, only a few feet away from where she was lying. Rough voices, rough speech, the scrape and crunch of heavy boots, the smell of strong tobacco. Boatmen.
    After a while, the voices stopped, the footsteps faded away and another sound reached her ears from

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