A story about Lancaster canal…

by Sofie Fowler

Originally published in the LEP, this was my first bash at writing a short story since school. It reads a bit like a script, probably because I wrote it in the middle of my Screenwriting BA.

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Lancaster canal ends at the top of a small hill, overlooking an industrial yard. It is surrounded by trees; oak and beech and ash. The water at the end is a dark brown. Rubbish rests at the surface, green slime coating the edges of bottles, crisp packets and beer cans. The handlebars of an unwanted bicycle poke through the thick matt of algae.

A woman sits at the side of the water, staring at the patterns a small bird makes as it forages for insects in the slime. The wind changes, rustles the leaves of the trees. The water ripples towards the end of the canal, pushing the gunk on the surface up against the reeds. A smell lifts from the water, moist and mouldy and rank. She flicks small pebbles into the sludge, watching it separate and congeal, dissipate, congeal. The wind changes again and the edges of her gown flutter. She pulls the embroidered shawl that is draped on her shoulders closer to her. The sun is beginning to fade.

“Nice frock you’ve got on there.”
She starts at the voice, turns to its source. He sits lazily on a bench in the shadows. She didn’t hear him arrive. He sips from a can of budget lager, drains it, crushes it and throws it into the bin next to the bench.
“Thank you.” she says dismissively.
He pulls another can from the pocket of his tracksuit pants. He taps the top of it then pulls the ring pull, smiles at the sound of it cracking open.
“You’ll muck it up sitting there. The dogs go up and down here.”
“It is of no matter.”
He rubs his shaved head in disbelief.
“No matter? If I were wearing something of that nick, I’d be mattering where I sat. You must have a few pennies for it not to matter.”
“I think you’ll find that’s not your business.”
He coughs up phlegm and spits it onto the ground next to him.
“Well ‘scuse me ma’am, but if you’re not fussed about it then there’s obviously something the matter. All dressed up and sitting where the dogs shite. What happened love?”
She is thrown by his frankness, unnerved by the question.
“Nothing of any importance. I simply wanted to be alone for a while.”
“You been to a party?”
“Yes actually.”
“What happened there?”
“Nothing, just my husband…oh nothing, I just simply couldn’t stand it any longer.”
“Come for a walk to get away then? Well I’ll warn you, the canal’s not a place for a lady like yourself to be wandering alone at night. You get some rough types down here. It’s nice in the day though, when the suns shining it looks lovely. All the little birds come out and people come down with their kids and dogs.”
“It sounds idyllic.”
“What?”
“It sounds nice.”
“Why didn’t you just say that then?”
She is embarrassed, she didn’t intend to appear haughty. She looks off down the rippling water to cover her embarrasment.
“Where does the canal lead to?” she asks, genuinely curious.
“Lancaster. It follows the A6. Old Roman road, all the way from London to the North.”
“I’ve never been to Lancaster.”
“It’s a bonny little town, lots of old buildings and little shops.”
“I’d like to go one day.”
“We could go now, it’s only a few hours walk.”
She laughs lightly at the suggestion. “I meant in a little boat.”
“I could steal you one.”
“Absolutely not.”
“Wait for your husband to buy you one then?”
She becomes suddenly sullen, sinking back into her own thoughts. He realises she is angry at him and hums gently to cover his discomfort. He suddenly has a thought and abruptly stops humming.
“Wait there.” he says, jumping up from the bench and disappearing behind her into the trees.
She is stunned by the suddenness of his departure as she was his arrival. She sits alone for several minutes, wrapping her shawl around her as the sun finally dips lower than the ground and the air becomes cold. The birds finish their dusk chorus and the canal is silent.

“Oi.”
The voice shocks her out of her musings, she turns and he’s there again, holding a large sheet of plywood. There are several long cylindrical posts of wood already stacked against the tree next to him. He begins to carry it over.
“What is this?” she asks with a frown on her face.
“What does it look like.”
“Where’s it from?”
“The yard down here.”
She leans into the trees and peers down the embankment.
“Have you broken that fence?” she asks curiously, then incredulously “Are you stealing wood?”
He grins and disappears back through the hole in the fence. A tinkle of glass. He reappears clutching a nail gun.
“What is that? What are you doing?”
“I’m getting tools for the raft.”
“Raft?”
“What do you think the wood’s for, I’m building you a raft.”
“Me? What would I want with a raft. A stolen raft no less.”
“Oh stop your fussing. I’m building you a raft so we can go down the water to Lancaster. I can’t get you a boat but I’ll build you something near as good.”
She is about to protest but stops. It is daring, exciting. A smile twitches at the corner of her mouth.
“Won’t we get caught?” She asks, smiling fully now.
He smiles back, shakes his head.

He lines up the logs and lays the plywood over the top, deftly nailing it down. In a few short minutes, the scattered bits of wood take form. He drags the raft to the water and gently pushes it in, holding it steady against the bank, nodding his head towards it. She frowns and shakes her head in response. Sighing, he stands up and brushes himself down, swings his arms around and takes a flying leap into the air. Landing in the centre, he spins his arms around madly to regain his balance as the raft bucks wildly. It stabilises, he carefully sits down and beckons to her. She looks dubious but throws her shawl over her shoulders and gathers up her dress. Sitting on the edge of the bank, she testily puts her feet on the raft, takes a deep breath, pushes off the edge of the bank and lands cross-legged on the raft. It dips and rocks violently and before she can settle, she is pitched off one side, splashing into the murky mulch. Water swells over the raft and throws him in as well.

The water is dark and cold, it floods his mouth and nose, gagging him. Coughing and spitting, he breaks the surface. He swims quickly to the bank and drags himself out of the water. Looking behind him for her he sees nothing. The birds are silent. Staring in the dark he scans for her, frantically, desperately. Nothing. She is nowhere to be seen. He panics and runs.

The next day there are men in goggles and flippers amusing the children in the gardens opposite the path. PCs talk into radios and DIs make notes in pocket books. One man measures a boot print, another inspects a hole in the fence of the timber yard. A helpfully observant barge owner describes a white man, about 5’11” tall, stocky build, shaved blonde hair and stubble wearing a t shirt and tracksuit bottoms. A DI makes a call on his mobile. A man with a dog-de-Bordeaux talks to a woman with a beagle at the fluttering blue and white tape. A swan swims close, hissing in disgust.

A diver surfaces and beckons to his partner, who slides into the brown water with a look of resignation. Bubbles break at the surface of the water as they struggle to de-tangle their cargo from a bicycle’s handlebars. They lift her gently to the surface and float her to the edge of the bank. Her shawl is torn where the divers ripped it to free her. Parents hurry their children inside. The DI makes another call from his mobile. They pull her onto the bank and dirty brown water floods from her mouth and nose.

The next month and a man of approximately 5’11”, stocky build, shaved blonde hair and stubble, sits in a court room wearing his only shirt and tie, gives his name, of no fixed abode. He grips the bar in front of him, sickly cold under his clammy touch. The jury do not believe his story and the judge does not approve of his previous criminal record. He tells the truth he knows and it isn’t the right truth. The handcuffs snap on, painfully locking his wrists. He goes down.