It is a great loss to me (and, I venture to suggest, the world) that I don’t run a creative writing class. If I did, however, this week I would be asking my students to pick one of the following items, all of which I have observed at one time or another on, in or in the vicinity of a canal, and use it as the starting point for a short story.
We begin with items found floating in the water. Pearson’s Canal Companion suggests that canal flotsam is not entirely savoury, and he’s not wrong. Here’s an arresting image from a passage on Langley Maltings (Titford Canal):
The water, too, seemed cleaner, as clear as a see-through blouse; though the contents of the canal bed thus revealed were not quite so desirable as the analogy suggests.
Item one is a dead seagull, frozen in a position that, in conjunction with a set of humming overhead power lines, suggested it had been electrocuted (or, at the very least, greatly surprised) before flopping into the filthy water, wings forever stiffly raised mid-flap – but there could be so many other explanations, each ripe with Adventure and Plot. Item two is a whole, unpeeled and (apart from being in the canal) apparently sound onion, which reminded my husband of a lettuce (also whole, and also apparently fine) he once saw in the canal, forlornly bobbing along
singing a song. This one almost makes sense, since lettuce is 100% useless (see Home Economics), but surely one knows that at the point of purchase? One doesn’t buy a lettuce in good faith and then, a few hours later, suddenly experience the stunning epiphany, crashing over one in a chilly wave of horror, that lettuce has nothing of value to contribute to the kitchen. ‘Begone, lying vegetable!’ cried no-one ever, hurling the wretched thing out into the void: one knows before one wastes one’s hard-earned cash that lettuce is Not Food in any meaningful way. A discarded onion, which could have formed the base of innumerable meals, makes no sense. Was it a missile in a heated domestic argument? Did it jump? Was it pushed? Endless possibilities unfold before us.
Our third floating item is a sex toy, last seen gently drifting towards Dudley like the world’s nastiest message in a bottle. From a distance, it appeared to be common or garden white goods, such as I regularly see from the towpath on my morning walk, which also happens to be along a canal. On closer inspection, it appeared that an enraged sex fiend had chopped a plastic women into sections and then discarded what one would have thought was the most useful part, which resolutely refused to sink. This should not surprise anyone who has thrown things into a canal: Giant Bear and I have learnt from experience that the more embarrassing the item, the less likely it is to sink. In our case, two strings of high sausages haunted us for an entire evening. We couldn’t fling them into the undergrowth on the bank in case a dog ate them and was horribly poisoned; in our food bin they would have made the boat stink; and putting them back in the fridge seemed equally mad. We had just moored in an absolutely beautiful spot, as close as we could get to one of the moorings from our honeymoon. As we opened the canal-side hatch, a kingfisher zipped into view, settled on a branch just long enough for both of us to cry, ‘A kingfisher!’ and then was gone again. In other words, it was a moment both idyllic and restful, spoilt by having to work out what on earth to have for dinner now that there were no viable sausages. Finally, we were tired from a long day of locks (me) and boat-driving (Giant Bear), and simply didn’t have the patience to wander up and down the towpath in search of another bin. There seemed no satisfactory solution (“and the canal is full of shit anyway”, we reasoned, recalling several of the items already mentioned), so into the canal with you, where, oh fantastic, you are producing enough noxious gases to float about accusingly for several hours. Fish appear and take a few exploratory nibbles; moorhens peck at you, but you’re far too gross even for things that live in a canal cheek-by-jowl with electrocuted seagulls and discarded sexual aids. Other boats charge past (rather than on tick-over, as they should be), but, how wonderful, you bob up in the wake, battered and intestinal, but undaunted, reminiscent of an unfeasibly lavish greyish-pinkish bowel movement and definitely no closer to sinking. You catch on an overhanging bramble for a few excitingly yucky minutes, but then drift brazenly back into the centre of the canal for all to see. Overnight, mercifully, you vanish, but we are both convinced that you are not gone, but lurking, in the reeds or under the boat, like some mottled sausage-y sea-serpent.
Item four is a rat I have seen many times on the canal at home, who has learnt that a local gentleman in his twilight years likes to sit in a certain spot and feed the pigeons. Pigeons are messy eaters and leave more than enough for a ratty breakfast. This particular rat has been known to wear a little Lucozade bottle-top on his head (I assume it was sticky the first time he encountered it), and thus is known as Lucozade Hat Rat. I venture that this is a rat with a rich and varied existence, with the whole canal to explore (graffiti under bridges! Discarded toasters! That guy who is always in a tremendous hurry and smells of hash!) and his rakish head-gear to distinguish him from what must be literally thousands of other rats in the local area. An updated Tales from the Riverbank featuring Lucozade Hat Rat is just as likely to become a quirky bestseller as any of the things that actually do become quirky bestsellers.
Item five is non-floating, but no less poignant for it: a tableau of a depressed-looking ginger horse with a sore foot (back right), languishing alone in a benettled field. In the foreground, a partially-sucked mint humbug sits on a fencepost, quietly melting in the August sunshine. Was it offered to the horse, mumbled and then rejected? Was it left by a kind passer-by for him to take at his convenience? Perhaps the horse sees and smells the sweet, but his sore foot prevents him limping over to the fencepost to claim it and he is horribly tantalised by its tempting brown-and-fawn stripes. Perhaps he is faking a sore foot in the hope of blackmailing kind passers-by into leaving him mints, which he hoovers up quietly at night, surefooted and sneaky in the darkness. Perhaps the horse hates mints; perhaps he hates passers-by, too. Here, one might pause to give some thought to the protagonist of one’s canal-based tale. There is always the option of taking a cue from Tarka the Otter, Watership Down et al. and basing a story around (say) a family of ducklings, a deceitful horse or indeed a seagull tragically cut off in his prime. There was, for example, that time I rescued a mouse in imminent danger of drowning in the boiling floodwaters of a nearby lock. Surely he returned to his nest that evening and regaled Mrs Mouse with a tall tale of raging waters, foul smells, mysterious engine noises and then –lo!– a stick-based miracle? Or one might choose to write a terrifying horror story, starring one of the many dogs that haunt the canal, a surprising number of which can’t cope with locks, boats, other dogs or Being Outside. Think of the terrors these animals have to endure. The Unattainable Sausages! The Place That Was Dark And Barking Made No Difference! Everything Is Floaty And Weird! ARF! ARF! This year we met a couple with a large boxer, which the chap cheerfully informed me was ruining their holiday. ‘If we go into a lock and leave her on board, she howls, shakes and pees on the floor,’ he said in an almost incomprehensible Birmingham accent, shaking her lead belligerently; she ignored this, continuing to focus all her energies on Barking At The Canal. ‘If we take her off the boat, she tangles her lead around my legs while I’m doing the lock. She’s welcome to drown anytime she likes.’
Students with some knowledge of canals might choose to show off their mastery of canal-related terminology (windlass, cill, pound, winding hole etc.), and model their prose style upon that of Pearson’s Canal Companion, which is certainly idiosyncratic. Consider, for example, Pearson’s description of Holt Fleet on the River Severn (‘A rash of caravan parks and shanty-like chalets mar otherwise unspoilt riverside meadows for everyone but their proud owners’); or the following comment on the Birmingham Canal Navigation:
So what do you think of it so far? […] Are you under its spell, or are you under psychoanalysis, still hyperventilating from its fulminating blend of inspirational industrial heritage and sheer downright ugliness?
One could do worse that to cast a canal gnome as the hero of our tale. The Canal and River Trust volunteers as they are more properly known are easily identified via their blue polo shirts and bright orange life-jackets; they are almost always wiry middle-aged men with Midlands accents (‘Orroight?’), knowledgeable, charming and name-badged. One exchanges the same pieces of information with all canal gnomes: yes, it is a pretty boat; yes, it is a nice-sounding engine; yes, my husband is driving it jolly well; yes, the water is low/high today; yes, the ‘missus’ has certainly drawn the short straw, walking miles in the lovely countryside along the towpath and pausing only to open and close locks, rather than standing still for hours in a cloud of diesel smoke and taking responsibility for anything bad that might happen to the boat; and what a beautiful/awful day it is. Canal gnomes help with locks whether one likes it or not, and admire Giant Bear’s driving, but more importantly for our purposes here, I bet they’ve seen it all: dead sheep the size of mattresses; enormously fat boaters bending the lock beams with their monstrous buttocks; broken paddles, lost windlasses, abandoned dogs; tipsy lone boaters leaving their vessels to fend for themselves while they man the lock; fisticuffs between anglers, boaters, walkers and kayakers all scrapping over the same stretch of duck-infested water; narrowboats grounded, overturned, sunk and on fire.
Finally, there is the genre of our putative short story to consider. I suggest that canals are under-used locations in murder mysteries. Susan Hill uses a riverbank in her Lafferton detective novels; Colin Dexter makes excellent use of canals in The Wench is Dead; and my own humble murder mystery is set a few feet from a tow-path (and speaks of more than one suspicious death that may or may not have taken place in that general area). However, no mystery writer I’m aware of, has as yet made full use of the possibilities offered by a canal tunnel. Canal tunnels are dark, noisy, completely unlit except by the lights of passing boats, and sometimes have narrow walkways along one side, which cry out as places to dump a body (possibly of a person; possibly a large female boxer with a lead wrapped around her neck). The murderer would, naturally, be found out several days later, however. Experience has shown that when he or she least expected it and was peacefully feeding bacon to a passing paddling of perverts, the bloated corpse would loom out of the brown water, bump (softly, sausage-like) against his or her boat and then refuse to sink.
 The humble duck turns out to be a depraved sexual predator upon further investigation. Mallards have explosive corkscrew penises, covered with spikes and almost as long again as their bodies. Their preferred method of sexual advance is to quack madly, ambush a female duck and grab her by the neck before deploying their terrifying weapon.
 J.M. Pearson, Pearson’s Canal Companion: Black Country Canals, Stourport Ring, Birmingham Canal Navigations (Central Waterways Supplies, Rugby, sixth edition 2003), p. 23.
 I don’t even put it in a BLT anymore; avocado, cucumber or more bacon are far better options.
 This is actually a jolly satisfying part of being on a narrowboat. Washing up is so much more fun when crumbs etc. can be simply tipped out of the window for waterfowl to squabble over. Thus does one make instructive discoveries, such as that ducks don’t like mushrooms.
 Pearson writes that ‘there is about the Dudley Canals an independence of style and spirit’, but I don’t think discarded plastic pelvises were what he had in mind. Pearson’s Canal Companion, p. 63.
 Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 36.
 Pearson’s Canal Companion, Stourport, p. 17.
 One of the boats a lock or so ahead of us got stuck on the cill (the lip at either end of the lock that the gates seal against) and partially grounded while they waited for the rising water to lift them away from it. We worked this out eventually, but there is no standardised system of hand gestures between boaters, and so one bellows emptily above the noise of boat engines and the rushing of mighty waters. I’ve often wondered why the canal gnomes haven’t yet given their minds to devising a system of approved hand gestures to convey a range of common messages to other boats, such as ‘Help help I’m aground’, ‘Do you have an up-to-date copy of Pearson’s Canal Companion?’ and ‘My name is Inigo Montoya. You stole our lock. Prepare to die!’