Neil fills the bath so full it threatens to overflow as he lowers himself into it. As arranged by Ian his clothes are taken away for cleaning and pressing. In his mud-stained jeans, tatty jumper and black cowboy hat he felt too self conscious to eat alone in the dining room – that and the glasses and the silver laid out on the white clothe tables shone just a little too brightly. But alone in his room he ate well, and videoed the event for Kimberly. So full is he now that his stomach extends above the waterline. He lifts his beer bottle off the side of the bath.
‘To you Ian. To grabbing the moment, oh, and to having wings, eh Jasper!’ He drinks deeply and lets his head roll back. He is in heaven.
If it were not for a rap at the door and a voice calling ‘Laundry service,’ he could easily have fallen asleep and woken up in a cold bath in the early hours. Instead he drips out of the bath, wrapping himself in an oversized towelling robe, to find his clean clothes neatly laid out on his bed, his jeans with a neat pressed line down the front. His jumper has not only been cleaned but the hole under the arm had been mended. He picks his phone up from the bed and texts Ian.
‘Warm bath, clean clothes, sprung bed. Thanks mate.’
In less than a minute a message comes back.
‘Boss pleased. Thanks right back at you.’
Neil snorts a little appreciative laugh and climbs in between the clean sheets. He doesn’t feel in the least worried that he is not with the piano; how many guards does it need? Besides, the piano is well known now; no-one’s going to steal it. Bushy-Mush is an independent dog and he’ll be fine, but he does just worry a little for Fuzzy-Pants as his eyelids flutter closed.
Tap tap tap. ‘Room service.’ Tap tap. Neil lumbers out of his dreams like a punch-drunk heavyweight boxer. The sheets fight back.
‘Sir. Sorry to disturb you, Sir but it is an eleven o’clock check out.’ The voice is apologetic, subservient.
‘Oh, er, what time is it?’
‘Eleven.’ The woman backs out of the door but leaves her trolley full of sheets and towels as a visual reminder that the room is hers now, and he must leave.
‘Eleven!’ Neil scrambles into his neatly pressed jeans and his jumper, that smells vaguely of lavender. ‘Crapola!’ Would they set off without him? No, surely not, they would wait for his command, wouldn’t they? After all it is his raft. But he cannot be certain and he takes the stairs two at a time when the lift doors do not immediately open. He throws the key on the reception desk and the concierge mutters a surprised ‘thank you, and did you enjoy your …’ But his words are lost as Neil runs full pelt through the village, his arms pumping, chest heaving until he can see the Price to Pay Pub in the distance. It looks deserted. He tells himself this is nothing to worry about; the raft will be hidden behind the pub, and the crowd, hopefully, whittled down to just a few. He slows to a walk, his lungs heaving as he enters the pub garden.
‘If you’ve come for the raft you’re too late,’ a man with his shirts sleeves rolled up, collecting empty glasses from the panic tables informs him.
‘What do you mean too late?’
‘As in too late. They left at eight this morning. There’s been a steady stream of people down here to get a glimpse, take a photo or whatever it is they want to do ever since it was on Britain’s Breakfast this morning after the news. Did you see it? It was a good shot, showed the pub lovely. Free advertising for me. I imagine I’ll be busy all day now.’
But Neil is already at the canal’s edge looking up and down.
‘That way.’ The glass collector points the way the river is flowing. Where Neil left the raft on the tow path the water is floating with crisp packets and cardboard coffee cups. ‘Mucky buggers as well, some of them, look at the mess and guess who will clear that lot up.’ The landlord, his hands full of glasses, heaves a sigh. For just a second it crosses Neil’s mind to stay and help tidy up. After all, it is not the man’s mess. But then that would be leaving Fuzzy-Pants and Bushy-Mush and the piano untended even longer. Fuzzy-Pants will be starving and needing a wee too. His hand automatically goes to his jeans pocket where the bacon from his uneaten breakfast is wrapped in serviettes.
‘Sorry I can’t stay to help,’ he says and breaks into a run.
‘Why should you, it’s not your mess,’ the landlord calls after him.
Neil runs until his breath comes in short gasps and his legs feel a little shaky, but there’s no sign of the raft. He reluctantly slows to a walk.
‘Okay, be sensible. They set off at eight, it’s now after eleven. That’s three hours, walking at, say, three miles an hour. He stops walking, puts his hand on his knees and bends over to catch his breath. That means the raft is nine miles ahead of him, give or take.
‘You alright laddie?’ croaks a voice quite near to him, that sounds like it might not be alright itself, it’s so phlegmy and guttural. The voice coughs, a great hacking noise that scares the birds from the hedges on the edge of the tow path.
Neil straightens himself, still out of breath, to meet this new stranger, and on first sight concerns for his own wheezing chest are gone. The man before him has grey hair sticking up at all angles, long in some places, short in others. He is not tall but he is very bulky, and is enveloped in a herring bone tweed overcoat that drops to his ankles. The coat is shiny at the collar and sleeves and grubby black around the knees and hips. A few turns of rough string serve as a belt around the waist, finished with a knot. Protruding below the edge of the coat are what look like a pair of rubber boots cut to slip over a pair of brogues with no shine left to them at all.
Neil looks back at the man’s face. He has not had a shave recently and his skin is a dirty brown, giving the appearance of being tough like leather, the creases permanent. But his eyes are a light blue, and they dance as he looks at Neil and his mouth twitches ready to smile.
‘I thought you were going to keel over then.’ His grating voice again at odds with the bird calls in the hedge behind him.
‘No, thanks, I’m fine.’ Neil looks down the path and takes a few more deep breaths, He needs to keep moving, to catch up.
‘You lost something?’ The man takes his hands out of his pockets, revealing fraying fingerless mittens. He holds up a cigarette end. ‘Got a light?’
‘I don’t smoke.’
‘Ah, wise, very wise. Nine days out of ten neither do I. But then a nice dock end presents itself I say to myself why not!’
‘Sorry but I have to go.’
‘What’s you rush?’
‘Yes, my piano raft.’
‘Oh! You mean that thing with the drawers and the piano on it that all those people were pulling?’
‘Yes, that’s it. Look, I’m sorry but I really have to go … Bye.’
‘Well, bye if you want, but if you’re looking to catch it up you have all the time in the world. Do you have a light?’
‘You already asked that. Why do I have all the time in the world?’
‘Sixteen locks. Down that way five miles. It’ll take them a good long time to get through and that’s if nothing is half way up coming the other way. I’ve seen people stuck there up to a day.’
‘Really. No light eh?’
‘No, no light.’
The tramp looks longingly at his half cigarette and then returns it and his hands to his pockets and starts to walk the way Neil will be going.
‘A whole day you reckon?’
‘Have you been through a lock with your raft?’
‘Remember how long it took?’
‘Times it by sixteen.’
Neil feels all the tension in his shoulders drop and his tight thigh muscles relax. But there is still Fuzzy-Pants.
‘And even walking slowly you’ll be there in two or three hours, no worries.’
She’ll manage, she’ll sleep most likely.
‘So why are you floating a piano down the canal, you a musician?’
‘Trying to make amends with my girlfriend. She wanted to move to London, and I was not so sure. This is meant to be a big romantic gesture to say sorry and show her how important she is to me.’
‘Don’t blame you though.’ The man interrupts his thoughts.
‘I’m Neil by the way.’
‘Honoured to meet you sir, my name’s Quentin.’ With the phlegm clearing from his throat his voice is distinctive, educated.
‘Don’t blame me for what?’
‘Not much relishing the thought of London.’ He stops to look around, the hills rolling away from them on all sides, dotted with trees, fields lined with hedges, the cows sitting chewing their cud.
‘It’s the lack of trees and nature and so on but it’s also the fear of being sucked in.’
‘Sucked in?’ Quentin takes his hands out of his pockets and looks at his cigarette end. ‘No light you said?’
Neil ignores the question this time. The cigarette is returned to the folds of the oversized coat.
‘The whole rat race thing, getting up crazy early to run all day and go home late just to afford a house you never spend any time living in.’
‘Ah yes,’ Quentin says sounding like a wise old sage. ‘The rat race.’
‘You must know what I mean? After all, have you have opted out of all that?’
‘Opted out, I like that. Yes, I suppose I’ve opted out. So are you saying you want to opt out?’
‘Well no, not like …’ He is about to say ‘not like you’ but realises that this could sound rude so he finishes his sentence with the word ‘Completely.’
‘Well it has to be complete else you are still in it,’ Quentin offers, which makes Neil smile.
‘You have a point.’
‘So, you think if you went to London you would get a great job and an expensive house and then run in circles to keep your expensive house. You, the man who is floating to London on a pile of sticks with a piano?’
Neil cannot help chuckling, the man is funny. ‘Not immediately, obviously.’
‘So when would you get all that then?’
‘Well, it sneaks up on you doesn’t it?’
‘You know what your life is? Your life is merely a combination of the things you are prepared to put up with.’
Neil smiles. It sounds like a joke, but then he runs the words through his head again.
‘I know. When the worst I would put up with was a detached house, two kids and a wife, that’s what I had. I didn’t want more so I didn’t work to get more because I was prepared to put up with what I had. I would have taken more if it had been offered for free, but if it required my work then I didn’t want it. The house and family was the “worst” I would put up with. If as a family, for some reason, we were in a tiny caravan I would not have put up with that, so I would have worked to get out, do you see? Our lives are a combination of the worst things we will put up with.’ Now Quentin chuckles as if it is a joke but Neil is serious.
‘I’ve never thought of it like that.’
‘And for you life without your girl is something you will not put up with, so you are taking her piano to her to win her back. So don’t worry about London. If you cannot put up with it you will do what it takes to change that.’
‘But Kim wants it.’
‘Then which is the worst thing you will put up with? No London and no Kim? Or London and Kim? Besides it’s all in your head anyway.’
‘What’s all in my head?’ Neil walks, looking at Quentin’s face; his dancing blue eyes. He exudes charm.
‘The universe is in your head,’ Quentin says.
It is either charm or insanity.
‘Then I must have a big head,’ Neil jokes and takes his cowboy hat off and then his jumper to sling it around his hips. The sun is heating up the day. He looks at his companion’s thick tweed coat. ‘Are you not hot in that coat?’
‘Hot, cold, all in your head.’
Neil does not answer. He looks ahead, hoping to see signs of sixteen locks and his raft but the canal stretches into the distance where it lazily bends a left and disappears. They continue to walk in silence. Neil listens to the birds in the hedgerows, spots a fox slinking the perimeter of a field full of rabbits dotted here and there, nibbling the bright green grass. He can see the openings to their burrows too, all over the field. The fox doesn’t have a chance, the rabbits will be too quick, and they are too close to home.
‘You can be free in a jail cell and lonely in a crowd,’ Quentin growls. He could be a radio news reader with that voice. ‘Because the universe is in your head.’
‘Hm.’ Neil is still watching the fox, which is sneaking closer to the rabbits. A rabbit freezes, it looks like it will run, but then it carries on eating. ‘You mean you need to look inwardly and get all spiritual?’ Another has its head up now, alert.
‘No!’ Quentin barks loudly and stops walking. Concerned, Neil turns to face him. Has he offended the old man? ‘You look outward. Outward! If you look inward all you see is yourself! I’ve had a lot of time to think about this.’ He starts to walk again.
The fox makes its move, the rabbits scatter, the fox runs low and hard but the white tails dip into the holes one by one, plop plop, plop, leaving the cunning one exposed on the hillside. The predator looks at a loss now, and slinks between gorse and rocks back to the shelter of the hedges.
‘You look outward and you see the things that make you happy, and you work to keep them happy so they stay around. If keeping them happy is uncomfortable for you so what? That discomfort is in your head! Concentrate more on keeping them happy and you forget discomfort. You forget hot and cold, you forget yourself and so you turn your discomfort to comfort. The happiness you created outside comes inside, your discomfort has gone and you’ve done it all from what’s in your head.’
‘How long have you been on the road?’ Neil asks.
‘No idea,’ Quentin grunts.