A Spontaneous Week

I can’t quite believe that it’s only been seven days since I was at my dad’s house. Last Saturday I was still there, and the whole family woke up at the outrageously early time of 9.30am to go and look round the parish hall, which is just across the road from dad’s house.

Now that the date has been settled and the venue chosen, I can reveal that on March 31st, my dad, my brother and I will be hosting a MASSIVE PARTY (by which I mean a buffet, ceilidh and concert) to celebrate our collective 99th birthday. I’ll be sending out invites closer to the time, i.e. next year, but I am already excited about it and making guest lists and plans.

Once the tour had been conducted and we’d seen all the rooms in the hall, which we can hire for an incredibly reasonable rate, I had to go back to the onslaught on my room. On Friday night I looked underneath my bed for something and was horrified to see, in the space where a storage box had been, a huge mountain of mouse droppings. My bedroom carpet is a pale brown, but it was a sea of black against the wall. So Saturday morning was spent throwing away anything that was still under the bed, vacuuming up the staggering quantity of droppings and desperately trying to get the carpet a bit cleaner. Next time I go back, I think we’ll need to hire a carpet shampooing machine but for the moment it’s thankfully clear.

After all that excitement I packed up my bags and set off on the train home. It’s not a very long journey if you exclude the wait times at stations, but because there are three changes of at least half an hour it took most of the afternoon.

I was very glad on Sunday morning that it was the first Sunday of the month, which meant that the adult choir weren’t needed for the church service and I could sleep. I should have been at the first rehearsal of the term on Friday night, but I hadn’t realised and was still at dad’s, so evensong (adults only) was my first service back. I don’t remember doing much on Sunday, I think I was asleep for most of the day.

Monday was mum and John’s one year wedding anniversary, although they decided not to do anything to mark it except exchanging cards. I had my last appointment with my counsellor, got a stack of books out of the library and made cheesy lentils – a delicious recipe I got from dad’s partner Gill.

On Tuesday I had a date to meet a friend from sixth form, Claire, at Costa. It was great to chat to her; we worked out that we hadn’t seen each other for nearly two years. She’s at the same university as my friend Lawrence, so we hear each other’s news but it’s not the same as actually seeing someone. We discussed mutual friends – Emma has moved to Australia! – and compared love lives (equally disasterous, although she seems to have the edge), and then I came home to find an email asking me if I was willing to tutor a 5 year old boy in maths and english for 4 hours per week.

I have to admit that I was initially sceptical, and rather torn. On the one hand, £40 a week is not to be sniffed at, I am very good with children of that age group, I enjoy tutoring and KS1 maths and english has a lot of potential for fun activities. On the other hand, 4 hours a week plus travel time (40 minutes each way by bus, although I will try cycling it and see if it is any quicker) is a hefty chunk out of my week, even if I take textbooks to read on the way, and I feel very sorry for any 5 year old who has to put up with that much extra “school”. But I reasoned that if they didn’t take me as a tutor, they’d take someone else so I wasn’t doing him any favours by turning it down. We’ll see how it goes – I’m meeting the family on the 24th when I go down for choir, and I’m just hoping that my supervisions and lectures won’t clash with the times we’ve provisionally agreed. If the worst comes to the worst, I’m sure there are other tutors they could find and hopefully other, less time-consuming, pupils I could tutor.

On Wednesday I had an appointment to meet the vicar for an informal chat, sort of preparation for confirmation but not really. I think it was mostly just for us both to be reassured that I knew what I was getting myself into, and for me to ask questions. He’s an incredibly well-informed and informative man, I learnt a lot and he told me some fascinating things that I hadn’t realised about the make-up of the church.

Then I got on a train and went to Smethwick Galton Bridge, to meet my friend Tom, his boat Spey, and her cargo of singersongwriters who were pootling around the canals seeking inspiration for a new album. Travelling by narrowboat is totally different from travelling any other way – calm, relaxed, and in the case of Spey, who was built in 1937 and still has her original (tempremental) Bolinder engine, very noisy and smoky.

We took a detour on our route to Wolverhampton to go through the Netherton tunnel (it took 32 minutes – I steered her on the way through, which was a very odd experience as it’s pitch black and the other end of the tunnel starts out as a tiny little dot of light) to go to a pub which turned out to have closed down. So we went to a much less exciting pub, met some tipsy men who challenged the boys to games of pool, exchanged bad jokes, laughed at a Carling’s advert, and then set off back through the tunnel and on to the Black Country Museum.

Thursday was spent at the museum as a temporary exhibit, because Spey’s sisterboat Stour (built at the same time and originally identical, although they’ve grown apart in 74 years) is a permanent fixture there. By some lucky chance a dedicated volunteer who cares for Stour, Dave, happened to be there that day. He and Tom swapped stories about the two boats while Tom fixed a leaky oil pump and I passed him cotton rags and got covered in grease and soot.

The museum is amazing, I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of it before. As well as Stour and a collection of similarly interesting canal boats connected to the history of the Black Country, there are houses, shops, a church, a school, a mine, a cinema, a fairground, a tramway, a pumping station and probably lots of other things I didn’t get to see, all representing a typical Black Country town at different points between 1890 and 1930. Hordes of schoolchildren came through while we were there, and the lady in the bakery (which sold me a cherry bakewell and a bag of broken biscuits) told me that most of their visitors are from schools. I wish I’d been to a school close enough to visit! Hopefully I’ll go back again, although at £13.40 for adult admission I’m very glad we got in for free on the boat.

At about 4pm we gathered back on Spey again and set off for Wolverhampton, with Dave and another of Spey’s joint owners, Alan. I found it quite funny that I had gone from Wolverhampton to Smethwick Galton Bridge by train in about 10 minutes, but that it took us more than 24 hours to get back. Even considering the detours and stops, it’s much quicker by train! But not half as much fun. The others started writing songs, poems, tunes etc and I polished the brasswork on the chimneys and looked out for ducks.

In Wolverhampton we moored up in a rather rough-looking area, near a British Waterways facilities building (toilets, running water, showers, rubbish disposal – very luxurious compared to a tar boat with none of those things), and went off to find a pub with the dubious aid of Gren’s girlfriend Julia, who led us first to a bar that had closed down the previous week, and then to Wetherspoons. It was a very lively, very alcohol-filled evening and we played Animal Grab, Irish Snap and a weird fusion of the two called Irish Animal Grab/Snap which dissolved into anarchy and a lot of drunken merriment.

Friday morning dawned and there were an awful lot of hangovers, but we somehow made it down the 21 locks between Wolverhampton and the start of the Shropshire Union canal. When we reached the SU, everyone except Tom and I went off in a taxi back to Wolverhampton to catch trains home, while we continued on up the canal for a few more hours. It was probably the best bit of the trip – the weather was glorious, the canal was remarkably free of lager bottles, shopping trolleys, old clothes etc, the banks were tree-lined instead of factory-lined and it was nice to just glide along, saying hello to passersby (many of whom were delighted to see Spey – she’s a very recognisable boat and the SU is her home canal).

Then we reached Wheaton Aston, where Spey was left very firmly moored and Tom drove me home. It was odd going at 60mph after several days of moving at little more than walking pace. I got home just in time to change my clothes (which were filthy and rather smelly), eat some tea and get to choir practice. A very odd change of gear in a very short space of time!

Then I slept solidly for ten hours, and now mum and John are out at some kind of church meeting/lunch/discussion group thing, and in the next hour or so I might think about having a shower (bliss!) and getting dressed, before beginning the last remaining big job before I go back to uni: packing.

I got back to dozens of emails, mostly adverts from supermarkets for things I wouldn’t want and can’t afford anyway, but one of them was the college choir’s itineary for the next year. We’ve got all kinds of concerts, extra services and recitals all over the country, but the most exciting thing is the choir tour to the USA next July. I’ve always wanted to go to New York and Washington DC, and I’ll be seeing both and also Philadelphia, Long Island and Boston! The music list for next term also looks great; I’ve even sung a couple of the anthems and masses which is encouraging. The idea of joining a college choir, even though it’ll be wonderful, is a bit scary since I imagine almost everyone else will have much more choral experience than me. Eek.

It’s been a good week, not just because I’ve had a lot of fun and done a lot of things, but because I think it’s the first week for a very, very long time where I’ve done something spontaneously and not regretted it. I have been getting out and doing things this summer, but they have been planned a long way in advance – the Bath course, Whitby, visiting my dad and so forth. I suddenly thought of asking Tom if I could join the boat for a couple of days on Monday, and by Tuesday night it was settled. It’s good to know that I am back to being able to do that sort of thing without paying for it through a week of exhaustion and anxiety (although we’ll have to wait and see about the exhaustion I suppose!).

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