Boaters will be familiar with the wisdom that holds that they are never able to congregate and converse without the subject matter of toilets coming up in the first five minutes. But why, when there is so much humour to be had in said subject, do the resultant confabs merely content themselves with an earnest dissection of the merits/demerits of the cassette over the pump out and vice versa, with occasional but-ins from the arriviste composting loo? A missed opportunity for laughs surely, but one which I am about to seize.
Let me take you way back, the very early 80s if I recall. An Easter time hire holiday, mum, dad, me, my brother John and his friend Milford (Incidentally, I have never before or since heard of or met another boy called Milford. Anyone?) We hired from Ian Goode Narrowboats which, possibly because one of the Old Union tunnels was on an extended stoppage, had relocated for the season to Weltonfield Narrowboats just up from Norton Junction. From memory, the boat was called Sandpiper and was white, orange and blue, which makes me think it was either an English County Cruisers hand-me-down or a loaner, as that livery and the bird naming convention usually adorned ECC boats. It was pretty hard-core, quite a far cry from the luxury we all enjoy today. To give you a flavour, I woke up the first morning (I’d been outrageously discriminated against, on account of my age, and ordered into the top bunk and to quit my wailing) and I kid you not, on my senses awakening and feeling the wet all over my body, I thought we had either sunk or someone had peeled the roof off. Apparently, this was just a bit of condensation! A bit? I was awash with the stuff, my sleeping bag felt like it had been slooshed through a bath. I doubt I’d last the fortnight, I’d be carried off with pneumonia or pleurisy or some other hard to spell bronchial ailment..
Besides, I was already carrying a heavy burden upon my young shoulders for I knew my beloved father far too well. And what I knew about him I also knew to be incompatible with the smooth running of a hire boat with five people aboard. You see, dad had a terribly low boredom threshold, the sort of LBT that would see him drive wilfully past a petrol station when the orange warning light was on his dashboard just to see if he could get to the next one before he ran out. It was childish really but bloody hell it was annoying…who wants to run out of gas in Hartlepool and have a mild seizure as you roll down the hill wondering if you’ll make the petrol station at the bottom?(We did because dad was also a lucky bugger).
Now, with reference to this hiring lark, sadly he had the same LBT-inspired devilry about him when it came to the poo tank on board the boat. I know and he knew that we would need to get a pump out about half way through the holiday. But he kept passing suitable places despite my pecking at his head, and despite every lavatorial visitation revealing the sordid truth…I mean, he must have seen the incontrovertible evidence just staring him in the face. And for those of you familiar with the old hire boat dump through you know I speak truth – the level just came up and up and up and, approaching a code red scenario, was always clearly visible when you popped the little flap open. Dad simply couldn’t deny we were now in extremis – especially as we were a day or so out from a marina and a rescue pump out. But he absolutely reassured me that all would be fine, there was still room, I was fussing about nothing, he was my dad and would he lie to me? I wanted to believe him, I really did, never more so than when he and mum popped off to the shops leaving les enfants on board and I found myself needing to pay an urgent visit. Are you familiar with Caesar’s refrain veni, vidi, vici? Well, despite being a Classicist I don’t actually know the Latin for I came, I saw, I had a fit of the screaming abdabs and ran for my life…But that’s what happened on pressing the pedal and popping back the bowl flap because I, a small, innocent, defenceless child, experienced the most heinous dump through blowback, a veritable Old Faithful eruption of stewed doings. Looking back, I wonder why I was quite so traumatised at the time, screaming poo murder and feeling the need to put at least 100 metres between me and the offending area. But then, as a long-term multiple dog owner and probably the picker-upper of somewhere in the region of 50,000 pooch poops over the past 15 years, I have since become totally insensate and can look all faecal adversity in the face with nary a twitch of the nose.
Actually, the desensitising process that I guess started back then by sheer accident has proved very useful as my toilet hijinks didn’t stop with the hire boats. Obviously there was no question when we had our boat built of what toilet type we would go for – I wanted minimal interaction so we specified a macerator/pump out. Slight concern that we might have called that wrong when it went kaput on the second morning of our shakedown cruise – something obviously hadn’t shaken down far enough! To his credit the builder did send someone the following morning to sort everything out, just not early enough to spare me a very embarrassing episode at the nearby Little Chef that had been eyed up as the emergency morning lavvie. You can picture the scene, furious hammering on the door, not quite opening time, clenched everything and staff that just sauntered over to open up a little too casually. They were crushed in the stampede.
But this was a mere amouse bouche of an incident compared to the splat du jour that followed the next day. We’d just pulled onto the lock mooring below Little Haywood and Andy was paying a swift visit before heading off to work me through. I was holding the centre line, adjacent to the bathroom, minding my own business, when a spurt of evil looking liquid shot out from the side of the boat over my trainers. Cue a few seconds of St Vitus dancing, trying to flick off the offending material but unbelievably not yet twigging the horrible truth. In fact, it wasn’t until I got onto the phone to the builder again – god, I must have come across as such a newb – that the truth dawned, unbelievable as it was. How on earth had our holding tank filled up so quickly? And how come I happened to be standing in exactly the wrong spot when it ejected its excess effluvium out of the breather pipe? With the benefit of hindsight I reckon that we just had too much water going through with the flush but even so, it transpired that we had the tiniest cack tank ever and one totally at odds with the needs of the crew, and the particularly productive first mate. So we changed the loo down the line, and went for a vacuum flush – this opened up a whole new chapter of, pardon the pun, inconveniences.
But it also gave me my finest marital ‘Aha’ moment, that moment when your accusation, so hotly denied by your husband, is proven with a damning exhibit A. So this little episode went something along the lines of ‘the toilet isn’t working, darling, are you sure you didn’t put that cleaning wipe down the loo instead of in the bin?’ ‘Oh no, I wouldn’t do a thing like that, don’t worry, I’ll look at it……right, it’s a bit banjaxed, we need to get a service kit…it’ll be here in three days’. Thankfully, this all took place while we were moored adjacent to Sainsbury’s in Huddersfield so we became practiced at the sprint from the VMs to the customer loos…I’d slashed about 20 seconds off my personal best by the afternoon of the third day. Now the Sainsbury’s security guards were just about to arrest me for suspicious behaviour (nine visits, alternating bandanas – pathetic disguise attempt – no purchases, except possibly guilt milk) when thankfully the service kit turned up. ‘Okay darling, I’ll have this fixed in a jiffy’ promises the first mate….fiddle, fiddle, spanner, spanner, swear, swear, ooh important mechanical bits finally apart and then me looking over his shoulder, seeing, realising the sordid truth…’What’s that, dearest hubby, wrapped around the pipe and bunging up the works…it looks suspiciously like a cleaning wipe….AHA!’ I knew it would be there as Andy is possibly the world’s worst fibber, and even though he got us all up and running again, I did make him suffer a bit – got my pound of flush you might say!