The canal

“Why don’t you put on a pretty dress? I’ll plait your hair and put some ribbons in it for you.” Mum was always trying to dress me as a girl. She wanted me to be a pretty princess, like some kind of toy doll. But I wasn’t having any of that. “No!” I shouted. “I hate stupid dresses! I don’t want to be all girly. I’m a tomboy! And tomboys don’t wear dresses!”

It was Sunday and every second Sunday we went to Nan & Pop’s house for lunch after church. Mum always wanted me to dress ‘properly’ on Sunday’s which is why we always fought. I didn’t see what difference the day of the week made or why anyone – least of all God – should care what I wore.

“Why does it matter what I wear, anyway?”

“Because your grandmother likes you to look neat and tidy when we come to see her. Right now you look as if nobody owns you!” It was interesting that my grandfather didn’t figure in this. Did he care what I wore or did it not matter to him? It was difficult to know. He was quite a forbidding man and I was a bit afraid of him. I suspected perhaps he didn’t mind as long as I kept out of his way and didn’t annoy him.

“I don’t care! I’m not neat and tidy! I like being messy! And I don’t want ribbons in my hair either! Yuck!” She sighed. “You’re such a scruff! You could at least brush your hair and wash your face.” “No!” I yelled. “I like messy hair!” Eventually she gave in, but only after a stern lecture that left us both cross and sulky.

We always had to be on our best behaviour at Nan & Pop’s house, but for some reason this was quite hard to do and we hardly ever managed it. Nan firmly believed that children should be seen and not heard, and should only speak, politely and properly, when spoken to. Children who spoke their minds or had opinions on things were naughty and needed to be disciplined. Nan felt quite strongly that naughty children were the fault of bad parents who clearly needed to pull their socks up. Visiting often made Mum crankier than usual, which made us kids irritable and naughty, which led to Nan telling Mum off about what terrible children we were and what a bad parent she was.

There were lots of rules at Nan & Pop’s house. We weren’t allowed to run in the house or go into the bedrooms or sit on the lounges (they were only for adults – we might get them dirty) or touch anything that wasn’t for children (which was pretty much everything) or talk at all when the news pips came on the radio (the radio was always on) so that Pop could listen to the news, or annoy Pop or tease the cat or go near the dog (he was quite savage) or drink straight from the tap (only savages did that) or play games in the house unless they were quiet. We were allowed to give the canary a treat or sit in the sunroom and read a book or play in the back yard.

Nan & Pop’s house was old and brown and didn’t have many windows. The lights were never allowed on during the day because it cost money, so it was very dark and a bit scary inside. The backyard had no grass or space to play. It was an ugly maze of raised concrete garden beds and concrete pathways. Nothing grew in the garden beds except weeds. Sometimes I played games in the maze, but I didn’t like the backyard much. I preferred the sunroom. It had yellow curtains and big windows and a comfy orange beanbag chair. It was also where the canary lived. Nan had a great collection of Enid Blyton books in the sunroom and I liked to read about Honeysuckle cottage and the adventures of Noddy & Big Ears. The only living thing in the backyard was a vine with yellow flowers that grew over the outside toilet. I liked to pretend it was honeysuckle and that the sunroom was Honeysuckle cottage.

It was always the same at lunch time. We always had Sunday roast. The table had to be set correctly and napkins, not serviettes, used. Elbows were not allowed on the table and talking was forbidden. We children were not allowed at table either and were banished to a kids table in the sunroom. We were not to complain about anything, eat everything on our plates, remember our manners and say please and thank you and may I leave the table. It was so boring!

We spent the whole time silently pulling faces and kicking each other under the table, trying to make the other one yell out and get in trouble. At least it was roast chicken today, my favourite. One time, we got awful brussel sprouts to eat. I tried to feed mine to the dog but he didn’t eat them. I got into trouble for that one.

After lunch, we were allowed out to play. My favourite place to play at Nan’s was in the canal that ran past the end of her street. The canal was a wide, deep concrete bowl with a narrow channel of slimy water in the middle. Sometimes there were tadpoles in there, or big green frogs.

An enormous round tunnel, covered in graffiti, went under the road. It was always interesting – and educational – to read the writing on the tunnel walls. I liked to trace the letters and drawings with my finger, copying their shapes to memory so I could try them out later in my book.

There were metal ladders on the canal walls so you could climb down to the bottom or get out in a hurry should any floodwaters come rushing down the tunnel. Mum was always scared this would happen and that we would be washed away and drowned. She liked to tell us stories about kids who had died playing in storm water drains, which always terrified us. But it never stopped us going straight there anyway, as soon as we were allowed out after lunch.

Teenagers often hung out in the tunnel, skateboarding and smoking and swearing. The boys skated up and down the tunnel walls and mock-fought a lot, and although they constantly teased the girls and tried to get them to join in, the girls just sat around looking bored.

Those girls were all very girly. They wore teeny tight miniskirts or ultra short cut off jeans and crop tops with big hoop earrings and way too much makeup. Maybe that’s why they didn’t do anything; they weren’t exactly dressed for fun. They pouted and scowled and arched their backs whenever the boys came near, but they never looked very happy. If the boys tried to touch them, they slapped them away. If the boys teased them or swore at them, they blew kisses or bent over and slapped their butts at the boys. One time, a girl pulled up her top and flipped the bird at the boys. She wasn’t wearing a bra. I didn’t understand these girls at all.

Once, after it had been raining for a week, there was so much water that the canal was full right to the top. It looked completely different, like a wide raging brown river with concrete banks. Bits of tree and rubbish were swept along in the current. A dead rat floated by, it’s stomach bloated and stinky. There was no playing in the canal that day. The teenagers were mooching on the swings in the playground because the tunnel was full of water. They scowled at us for wanting to play on the swings and chased us away, so we had to go back home and play in the driveway. It was one of the worst visits to Nan & Pop’s ever.

This time there was something wrong with the water. It had turned all black and oily and it didn’t look like water anymore. We watched, my brother and I, in horrified amazement as the water roiled about as though it had been possessed by the devil himself. It seemed to be forming into hundreds of weird rubbery shapes that glistened and curled and rolled around like tiny waves.

“Are there supposed to be waves?” my brother asked. “How did the sea get in here?”

“Maybe it’s not the sea. Maybe it’s a lost sea monster, like a kraken!” I said.

“What’s a kraken?” he asked.

“It’s a giant squid that lives deep down in the ocean. It hunts boats by ambushing them from below and rushing up so fast, it can burst out of the water and grab the ship in its tentacles before anyone even realises what’s going on! By the time the crew has worked it out, the kraken is already dragging the boat and the crew down to the bottom of the sea for its dinner. That’s how mermaids are made,” I told him.

He looked at me, his eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Don’t be stupid. It’s not a big enough channel for a kraken.”

“Maybe it’s an underground kraken instead of an undersea kraken. Maybe it just found a crack through the canal into the above ground world and was trying to ambush us but got stuck, so now it can only wave the tips of its tentacles around.”

“You’re mad,” he yelled. He stuck out his tongue and blew raspberries at me as he ran towards the ladder. “But you might be right about the underground thing. Maybe it’s an oil well! We could be rich!”

As if. That kind of thing only happens in the movies. Old fashioned, American movies. Boys are so dumb. But I was curious. What was making the water move like that?

My brother was squatting on his haunches at the waters edge, poking at it with a stick. “What is it?” I shouted as I ran across the concrete floor. “It’s eels! It’s full of eels! Look at them all! There must be hundreds and hundreds,” he said excitedly. “Well don’t poke them! You might hurt them,” I said.

I squatted down beside him to look at the wriggling mass of eels. There were hundreds! It was like an eel traffic jam that was backed up for miles. Eels wriggled over eels, fighting and squabbling and splashing as they tried to get past the mass of eel bodies and onto freedom. As soon as an eel did make it over the knot it swam quickly away down the canal.

“Why are they all so stuck there?” I wondered out loud. “Dunno. But I want to pat them,” he said, reaching out his hand. I grabbed it. “No! What if they’re electric eels and you get zapped? You might even die if you touch two at once. Actually, do electric eels work like that?” I giggled. “Don’t cross the eels!” That was a reference to his favourite movie, Ghostbusters.

But he didn’t laugh. He just looked at me scornfully and said, “They’re not electric eels, you idiot. They’re just regular eels.”

“How do you know? They might be. You don’t know everything, Mr Smartypants.” I crossed my arms and sulked for a bit. He reached out his hand again to pat the eels. “Well go on then. I hope you do get a shock and die. It’d serve you right if I was right for once.” But of course he was right and they were regular eels so he didn’t die. “Ew! They’re all slimy and gross! Pat them sis, go on!”

I didn’t know if I wanted to pat them. They looked a bit too gross to me. A shiver ran down my spine. Mum always said that meant a goose walked over my grave. But I didn’t know what she meant. Did she mean my future grave? Or the grave of a past life? Or am I really dead and just think I’m alive and whenever I shiver, that goose is a reminder that this reality is really an illusion?

“No I don’t think I want to pat them. I want to know what’s causing them to pile up like that. There must be something blocking the canal. But what?” I asked. “Maybe an eel died, then as the eels piled up, more died and more until there was a whole pile of dead eels filling the canal and no more eels could get past!” said my brother excitedly, jumping up to look more closely at the blockage. I thought about that for a moment. Could be, but wouldn’t it smell like dead things then? “Yuck! That’s gross. And it would stink.”

“I can see something shiny!” he yelled, pointing to the pile of eels. “I think I can reach it.” He pushed his hand down through the wriggling eels, who wriggled even harder to get away from his arm. Another shiver ran down my back at the thought of touching all those eels. “Have you got it? Can you get it out?” I asked. “Not sure. I think it’s some kind of handle. Or a tap. Maybe it’s a tap.” He tugged at the shiny handle tap.

“A tap? In a canal? That’s weird. Do you think if you turn it, it’ll fill the canal with more water? Or maybe it’s a drain tap and all the water will get sucked out if you turn the tap on!” He looked at me and shook his head. He kept tugging but it wouldn’t budge. “I can’t get a good grip. It’s all slimy and there are eels jammed all around it. I think there’s something else under it too.” He stuck his other hand down into the eels, trying to get a better grip on it. He pulled and pulled but it simply refused to come loose.

“There’s definitely something else jammed in here,” he said. “I think it’s gunna take both of us to pull it out. You’re gunna have to get your hands dirty, sis.” Ugh. I didn’t like the idea of touching those eels but I did want to help unblock the canal so they could get untangled and be free. “Oh all right then.” I took a deep breath, screwed up my face, stuck out my tongue and plunged my hands into the eels. They were just as slimy and wriggly and icky as I’d expected. Ew! But I could feel something. It didn’t feel like a handle though. It felt like a wheel. “I think I’ve got a wheel!” I said. “A wheel? That’s weirder than a tap!” he said. “Let’s both pull together. Ready? One. Two. THREE!”

We pulled and pulled and after a bit we felt something shift. “It’s coming!” I yelled excitedly. “Pull!” he yelled. We pulled with all our might, straining and groaning, eels frantically wriggling out of the way and spilling out of the canal onto the concrete banks, until the blockage made a loud sucking sound and suddenly came flying up out of the canal, spraying muddy, slimy water and eels everywhere and knocking us both over backwards. A tangled mass of rope, wire and rubbish covered us both and we sat up just in time to see a wave of water and newly freed eels rush down the canal. Within a few seconds, all the eels were gone and the canal was back to normal. It was as though they’d never been there at all, except for a couple of stragglers on the concrete, still trying to wriggle back to the water.

I felt a bit dazed and superhero-like. We’d saved the eels and unblocked the canal! Hurray! “Wow. That was AWESOME!” yelled my brother. I nodded in agreement but for once I had no words. Nothing seemed fitting to describe what we’d achieved. I stared at the rubbish plug. “I think there’s a scooter in there,” I said. “I think that’s our handle and wheel.”

And there was. It was a fine silver, fold up scooter once it was untangled and washed off. We spent the rest of the afternoon scooting up and down the canal, singing “We saved the eels! We saved the eels!” Filthy dirty and covered in mud and slime, we proudly took the scooter home with us and Mum said we could keep it as a reward for our good deed. “See?” I said. “I wouldn’t have been a rescuer of eels if I’d worn a pretty dress with ribbons in my hair!” I’m not sure Nan approved, but Pop secretly winked at us.

© Bea Pierce, 2015