Sunday 22 May 2011

Charlie's Story

One day I returned to our mooring to find that ‘Charlie’s Chugger’ was moored nearby. ‘Charlie’s Chugger, and Alfie’s Also’ is a  42ft blue narrowboat that used to belong to my mate The Marine Engineer: It was his workshop.
“I know Charlie!” exclaimed Big Sister.
A ripple of sadness crossed the surface of the glittering sunny water.
“I don’t think you do darling,” I said. “You've never met him. You must know a different Charlie.”

I am deeply honoured that The Marine Engineer and The Original Boat-Wife wished to share Charlie’s story on my blog.

Charlie's Story
A guest post by Nigel Rickards.

May 22nd 2004   
A lovely warm sunny spring day, it was Saturday and the Rickmansworth festival was on, it was also Cup Final day.   
We were moored just above Denham Deep Lock and had been for a week as we had broken down (the coupling on the prop shaft had broken and we were awaiting a new one). We had been making our way up to Ricky to get a good spot for the festival weekend, as the boys, Charlie in particular, had enjoyed it so much the previous year. This was the first time we had taken the boat up for a few years, the first since the arrival of both Charlie and Alfie. 
On Friday afternoon Rob on ‘Cornwall’ had breasted up and taken us up to the Horse and Barge at Harefield  so that we could get water and do the loo etc.
Charlie sat up top with Janet and Rob as we made our way up there; Charlie was never one to be stuck inside when the boat was moving. The following morning Rob brought us back to Denham Deep as it was a lovely spot and there is a great woods for the boys to play in and trees to climb. I had been off work the previous few days as Janet had been working and had spent some fantastic days with my two boys Charlie, four years old, and Alfie two years old. We spent our time rampaging through the woods having boys adventures and walking across buttercup filled meadows on the other side of the lock, discovering abandoned little bridges that have been lost to the modern world but obviously had a purpose and use once upon a time. We spent ages throwing sticks in the River Colne for our dog Jess to go in and retrieve.
The weather had been great and I had been telling Janet what fun we were having. She was very jealous and quite rightly wanted some of the same for herself on her next few days off work, so that is why we decided to get Rob to take us back to Denham Deep. I had passed up the opportunity of getting a tow back to our mooring earlier in the week; I had declined politely and told Vince if we have to be broken down, then I can’t think of a lovelier spot to be stuck.  So many small decisions made and if any of them had been made differently, I wouldn’t be sitting here painfully remembering the events that were to change not only that weekend but the rest of our lives.

When we got back to Denham Charlie and I went over the old white bridge and helped to push the front of Rob’s boat round as he slowly turned ‘Cornwall’ around. While we were over there Stan who was also moored at Denham came out on deck and took a picture of Charlie and me. After Rob had said farewell, we readied ourselves for the day ahead. Janet was going to take the boys over to Denham Country Park taking the path through the woods and over the wooden bridge which crosses the Colne, then up past the golf course and the fields where the horses live. I had to go to work for a couple of hours and then I would be back and we could all head off to the festival in the afternoon. Before I left I had promised Alan and Trish of Candlebridge Carrying Co: that I would pull their boats up to the bollards once they were free. They had taken a few days off for themselves after a busy winter delivering coal, gas and diesel to all the boats.  It wouldn’t take me long so I went while Janet finished getting the boys stuff ready. Charlie asked me to get his bike off the roof as he wanted to take it with him on the walk with mum. I don’t know why Charlie didn’t come with me to help move the boats that day as he always wanted to be involved, and I would always ask him if he wanted to come, maybe it was because I was rushing or maybe it was because I thought he needed to be helping mum get his stuff ready. Just after I left though he asked Janet if he could go with me and she said yes, she watched him from the hatch as he rode down the towpath to the bend where Stan was moored  I had only just left a few seconds before so he would be on top of me now, no need to worry.  I didn’t look and I didn’t hear a thing, and when I got back 15 minutes later panic broke out. I cannot go into anymore details of what happened that day, except to say that it was all of our friends from along the canal that came and gave us support and helped us through the ordeal that long Saturday. They came from south of the lock in Uxbridge and Cowley. They came from the north at Harefield, Springwell and from the festival at Rickmansworth. We all stayed at Fran’s Tea Rooms by the lock at Denham and Fran kept everybody in tea, coffee and food all day long. The phone seemed to ring continuously as word spread on the towpath telegraph. The lock at Denham and Harefield had the paddles padlocked so that the Pound was closed and no water was moving while the divers did their job. Lines of boats waited below the lock, they had been making their way to the festival as well, but nobody complained about waiting. It was about 5pm when the Police Officer who had been liaising with us finally broke the news which we knew was coming all day. We were finally allowed back on to the towpath and we walked in the dread of what we knew we were both going to have to confront. Our beautiful boy was gone, he just vanished, in a split second of being out of direct contact with either of us he disappeared and yet now here I was carrying my wonderful son in my arms for the last time in my life, back to the ambulance that had been waiting all day. We couldn’t come to terms with it and still 7 years later we still haven’t and probably never will. All of his short life people who didn’t live on boats always asked,
 “Aren’t you worried about living on the water with kids?” Of course we were and we knew the dangers as well as anyone, and so did Charlie, we had made sure of that. It goes hand in hand with all of the other very important things you teach your kids to do from a very early age like, crossing the road safely, potty training, careful the fire is very hot, saying please and thank you, etcetera.  I would always reply to that question along the lines of,
“Don’t you worry about your kids getting out of the garden and into the road?” Wherever you live there are dangers for children everywhere. I failed as a dad that day because I wasn’t there for Charlie when he needed me most, and for that I will carry the guilt and pain in my heart forever, until one day I hope to hold him again in a better place than this and tell him how sorry I truly am. I am not religious but I now have a wish that there is something more. 

At Charlie’s funeral there weren’t enough seats in the church, so people stood at the back, the majority of those people were boaters, and afterwards we had a celebration of Charlie’s life. He had filled us with joy from his first day, he was a boys boy, living life at full speed, he was never scared to try anything and always made friends wherever he went. Apart from the last 6 or so months when we got a long term mooring in Cowley for school, we cruised continuously between West London and the Tring summit, we moved every couple of weeks or so and Charlie would generally be up top with me.  As he got older he helped with things like opening the lock gates and winding up and down the paddles (with a little help from his dad of course). He would help me empty the rubbish and fill the water tank. Living on the water he watched me fish and he was a keen angler, he would sit there quietly with his rod and just wait patiently. One of the funniest things that he was prone to do was to lean out of the side hatch and yell at passing boats to slow down when they were rushing by too fast. Obviously the sight of a two year old doing that was too much to handle because most of those boats did slow down, and Janet and I would just fall about laughing.

Some weeks later Paul from the Lock cottage at Uxbridge approached his boss at British Waterways and they organised for a lovely bench to be placed at Denham where Charlie had his accident, there’s a small brass plaque engraved with his full name and a few words fitted on the bench and if you ever venture that way, take a seat and enjoy the surroundings, for this was part of Charlie's back garden, and he loved it. There is also a rose tree planted there in his favourite colour and some friends on boats helped to clear the vegetation, trees and shrubs surrounding it so it all stood out a bit more and got the sun. He has his picture hanging in his old school surrounded by drawings from all of his little friends. At his first school where he went to prep in the mornings they planted a tree in his memory with a plaque beneath. 

Of course Janet and I have regrets, but I don’t regret the life he did have. It was full of boys adventure and fun. He may have been with us only a short while but he lived a hundred childhoods in that time and left such warm memories for any who knew him.  I am glad that he was born to a boating life and I am proud of my boy for the life he lived in that boating world and the mark he left on all of the wonderful boaters he met. When I think of all my years living aboard, those 4 years 15 weeks and 6 days when I had the honour to share my experience with Charlie, was the best time of it all.
I could go on and on with wonderful stories of Charlie, but I will stop. Thank you “Boat Wife” for the opportunity to write this. It has taken me a while and I have cried so much that I just wanted to stop, but I am glad that I didn’t and glad that I have now finished and got back to all my happy memories. People lose children every day across the world in so many different ways, we never think it will happen to us and I wish it never has to happen to anyone again, but unfortunately it will. Charlie could have lived on the 15th floor of a council block in South London and been hit by a car. Nobody much would have noticed just another car accident and not much of a life before that. But he didn’t he lived on a boat, in the south of England in some of the most beautiful places and had a ball every day of his life, and when he had his accident everyone noticed as it was such a rare accident, because kids on the cut know, they're all brought up to know, all boaters know. When all is said and done, I think it is a wonderful way of life for kids to grow up nowadays. Such a rare opportunity to experience life and people and to get to know and experience the world you live in, at an age when all the materialistic things in life don’t matter.
Thank you again Boat Wife and to all of the boaters I have mentioned by name or not, you know who you are and so do I.  We have now moved from the canal and live in Australia, we have Alfie, now almost 9, and little Jake who was a bit of a surprise, and he’s 2 in August.

In Memory of Charlie.
Missed so much by all who knew his smile.

1 comment:

Alice said...

wow, what a powerful post. Written so beautifully. We all know the dangers of bringing up children on the cut (although as Nigel says, a child could just as much run out from a garden into the road) but ultimately I too believe it is a wonderful childhood. To be so close to nature, to have so much freedom in the great outdoors... so sad about Charlie, and yet what a wonderful childhood he had.