|Google Earth Peccadillo at Applecross Street...|
|... and on the Falkirk Wheel|
11th May 2004
It is one of those gentle sunny days that were made for painting boats. And we are. Jim’s tackling the Nolly Barge’s black and I’m sanding down the varnish on Peccadillo’s front door, the deep brown wood coming up a treat. George is pottering backwards and forwards to his car with landscaping tools, and even Seamus surfaces, setting off for town. “Top o’ the morning to you” he waves, the lilting Irish accent making me smile as always. The British Waterways boys hail us heartily as they march back and forth to the workshops, and this is our Applecross Basin neighbourhood. Delicious.
“How was the family reunion in Ireland?” I call after Seamus, striding purposely off in his perennial shorts and sandals. It takes a grim winter to drive him into trousers.
“Ohhhh,” he smiles, “The crack was mighty!”
Gentle Seamus. He is our resident artist. He doesn’t paint or draw, he simply lives his life like a piece of art. His tiny boat is almost completely obscured by a veritable forest of wild plants and strangely sculpted rescue furniture. A bar stool from Lidl, a bird table attached to the top of a length of pine trunk from which stumps protrude like amputated arms, an assortment of lanterns and, if you part the fronds to look at the boat, an enormous stained glass rendition of some catholic scene. The applauding plants are planted in a mad assortment of wooden crates, props that were left behind by the Young Adam film crew, and a couple of metal bins and large watering cans that George probably brought. Seamus has gradually filled them with soil, bulbs and even a small tree rescued lovingly from a garden clearance.
Never a harsh word will I hear from his lips or indeed much that’s excitable. In a few years he will return from a life-changing crusade to Guinea to see the boy he has been sponsoring. With sparkling eyes and lurching heart he will talk of the wonder and the tragedy of that country, and show me the impossibly huge vegetable that was presented to him by the village. A man that travels with nothing but a minimalist rucksack walks into the UK with a fresh Yam the size of a breadbin and no one notices? It is incontrovertible evidence to me that the man blurs between the lines of our reality and some other ether.
He has recently stripped the interior of his boat and refurbished it with raw wood planks, not sanded at all. We all watched with bated breath as he assaulted the inside of his hull with an angle grinder while still afloat at his mooring, but Dar il Helena still floats. The refurbishment threw off his ballast and she was listing dramatically till he strategically placed an old tin bath of rocks on the roof. Smooth round rocks like loaves of bread that George has brought from some landscaping job he was doing. George is always bringing us stuff he’s rescued from clearing out sessions where he’s doing gardens. A stool, a plant, an old bottle, a vase, a rucksack, a lantern. How absurd is it that we liveaboards in our tiny homes feel obliged to rescue so much junk.
Seamus invited me in to see the wood finish in the boat and I was flabbergasted to see that the entire length of one side of his boat, probably a quarter of his compact living space was taken up by thirty or forty lever arch files. It is difficult to describe the sense of suffocation by “stuff” that one develops after living in a confined space for some time. I have file upon file of old phone bills, letters and rubbish, I have them, but in a boat you just have to keep on top of that stuff or you simply drown in it. Such wanton allocation of precious living space is enough to take ones breath clean away. “Seamus! What on earth are these?”
“Newspaper clippings.” he said. “I see these wonderful stories and photographs in newspapers and I can’t bring myself to throw them away.”
I gasped from under that familiar crush of my own hoarded junk, that shifting three-dimensional puzzle that is my living space. “Would you like to see one?” He selected a file at random and handed it to me. Two hours later I surfaced with a sigh. Carefully pasted and sleeved, dated and placed, with a sense of order and completion that you and I could only dream of, was article upon article of sadness and beauty, magic and madness. I was transported. And ever after, when people shook their heads at the “mess” around Seamus’ boat or the bizarre shed-like structure he would build astern in years to come, I would shake my head right back and say “If only there were more like him in this world to put the magic back in.”
It’s hotting up towards noon and I hail Jim. He puts us to shame with his energy, this ex policeman skipper of the Nolly. Always busy when the boat is not out on a trip; painting, washing, fixing. He has the blackened roller on the end of a pole and it’s a perfect day for blacking with no wind and the water, still as glass. If the boat’s not moving and there are no little waves you can get that roller right down to the waterline, save yourself a few months before having to get her out to paint the hull. I can even steal another inch on the waterline by emptying the water out of the holding tank in the bows. Peccadillo lifts her prow ever so slightly till the boat hook is clear. The waterline is the lifespan of the boat. This meeting of water and air is where the worst corrosion happens.
Happily my hull is now squeaky clean and black, having just been out of the water and completely gone over with a miraculous undercoat from Aberdeen. It’s the stuff they use on the rigs and will still show hard as steel in years to come. But there’s a disconcerting side effect to having a smooth flat bottom to your boat.
As I step inside I hear the loud rumble of air escaping from under the boat, a sort of marine flatulence that triggers panic for just the briefest moment, even though I know now what it is. Just after she was back in the water, the first time I heard it, at two in the morning, I went hurtling to check the bilges and the front floor hatch thinking the movement I could hear was actually water IN the boat. I’ve noticed the excessive bubbles of air rising from the canal bottom recently, realising that this is what is gathering under the hull. Naturally bubbles are rising all the time. Many canal routes are built on what were marshy areas many hundreds of years ago and Possil is no exception. So you’d expect gasses to rise up through the canal, but these bubbles are the size of buckets, rupturing the surface so loudly that if you hadn’t seen the silver ball rising you would think it a huge pike. I wonder whether this has anything to do with the heavy storms we’ve had recently, or the excessive sunshine today, or whether they’ve just always been there and I never noticed because they weren’t getting trapped under my hull when the surface of it was all uneven with algae.
Seamus’ savage garden on the quayside sighs in the silent heat. The daffodils are just giving way to a riot of blooms, weeds as lovingly tended as the rest.
I step out into the sunshine with a cloth to dust down the sanded doors and am met with the full force of a violent explosion less than half a mile away. Everything shakes with the double blast; Seamus’ flowers, the surface of the canal, the eyes in my head, and my lungs feel as if someone has punched me in the back. Then silence. Jim and I look across the roof of Peccadillo at each other and look back to where the noise came from. The silence feels like a dislocation in time and I am hurled back to the war years in Zimbabwe, Rhodesia then, when explosions like this were woven into your daily expectation. But there is no smoke, no flame, no rumble and no shouting. Nothing. Till suddenly a surreal pink cloud of brick dust rises into the air. Slowly, deliberately, it starts as a domed, fleshy mushroom, just in front of us where we know the shops are, the Lidl where Seamus buys his mad lanterns.
It continues to rise till it fills the sky and obscures the three blocks of high-rise flats in front of us, continues to rise till the sky seems to darken, and now it is that I panic, imagining that I am living my darkest nightmare of nuclear explosion. No smoke. Just pink dust. I look desperately over to policeman Jim and he says “Ohhh I know what that is, it’s a controlled explosion. They must have brought down a building, I’ve seen that dust before.”
It is a building come down, right enough. What we cannot know is that it was a working factory full of people, not controlled at all. Stockline Plastics has a full staff of sixty, twelve of whom are now trapped under the rubble of the building that collapsed so fast it didn’t even rumble. The noise lasted less than two seconds. Seven people have died already, two more will die in hospital and the rescue operation will last for three days. It seems to be an age after the blast before we hear the sirens... the whole world standing still in stunned silence.
There will be many theories about what actually happened at Stockline Plastics today. Most centre on the two boilers in the basement, saying that one exploded and blew up the other. One will suggest that the weight of heavy machinery and pallets on the upper floors simply caused the floor to collapse, bringing the rest of the building down with it. The final inquest of the Health and Safety Excutive will decide that the explosion was caused by “ignition of gas released by a leak in a pressurised petroleum gas pipe” and levy a fine of £200,000 on two companies responsible for the plastic manufacture on the premises. As it happens, neither are Stockline although this is how the disaster will always be remembered.
But there is one theory about a “dust explosion”, related to a build-up of methane beneath the building. The article talks of how the recent heavy rains have raised the water table so suddenly as to push methane gases into the basement. Gas in a basement. Just as terrifying as gas in the bilges. If you have a gas leak on the boat you need to bale it out with a bucket, the gas being heavier than air is so perfectly contained in the lower reaches of the sealed hull that it simply becomes more and more concentrated as it forces the lighter air up and out. Such a perfect explosive device, is a boat.
Gas in a basement must be the same. But this report appears briefly in the papers and then disappears; it will be another three years before the final verdict. And when it comes out I sit on the bows on a sunny day, and shake my head. I will think back to this pink dusted May morning, and realise that I have never again seen those great balls of gas rising up out of the canal.
Never as big.
Many thanks to Sue McNally for her patience and editing help on this one.
There are too many links to online articles to paste here; if you would like to find out more simply google Stockline Plastics.