02 February 2013

eight fourteen

             It was 8:14 somewhere. It did not matter where. Her watch was set to some American time zone and had not been adjusted for Daylight Savings since who knows when. But at 8:14 somewhere, they were laying in the hull of her aunt’s mustard narrow boat. They breathed the boat’s musty atmosphere in the dim of another gray morning.

            Her aunt’s life as a canal dweller had always been a distant fascination. Since childhood, about the time she spent three months’ allowance on the dolphin ring he now wears on his left hand, this buoyant life beneath the willow tree was the type of fairy tale you might only unearth in the basement of some ancient library. It wasn’t real life. And now she was there, at 8:14 somewhere, surrounded by Tolstoy & de Beauvoir & Chekhov & Sartre. She was there, in the to-and-fro of gray sunlight, her left ear pressed against the right side of her lover’s chest.

            He arrived six days prior on an all-nighter after two days of bus travel through post-harvest Oromia. It was 8:14 somewhere when he touched down, but the sun had yet to touch West London. He spent the night at an airport Holiday Inn, absorbing on his lonesome the initial shock of toilet paper in public restrooms, of chicken wrapped in bacon, of high-pressure hot showers, of abbreviated verbal exchanges. They had been counting down the days for months, and now it was only a matter of hours before he’d hop the shuttle back to Terminal 1 and wait anxiously.

            That same afternoon, at 8:14 somewhere, she dashed back to their nook on Pemberton with the same fervor that overtook her 27 third-graders as Christmas vacation had finally begun. She scooped up her luggage and met her father downstairs. It would be her first time ever leaving the country, and she could not imagine a better excuse.

            She touched down at 8:14 somewhere, thirty minutes ahead of schedule. He hurried down his last bit of scrambled eggs and hopped the H6. He stood, mostly frozen, as passengers flooded out, catching periodic glimpses beyond the automatic doors. He scanned each face with an unfamiliar sense of anticipation.

She had finally made her way through the infinity that flowed from gate 23, endured immigration, collected her bags, and withdrew several hundred of the wrong currency. Her luggage cart was loaded to the top as she passed through customs. She could barely see beyond the black suitcase she had stuffed to the brim with supplies to help him endure Ethiopia.

            He spotted her, unsure at first whether it was actually her standing there, close enough to catch a baseball. He froze as she surged forward, smiling from ear to ear. The rest of the world froze as they embraced for the first time in seven months.

“I don’t ever wanna let you go,” she said, as tears welled in two sets of blue eyes.

“You don’t have to,” he whispered, into her wavy brown hair.


            In the days that followed – the days that filled the space between that moment and 8:14 somewhere on her aunt’s musty mustard narrow boat – they would stroll along Southbank, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and tastes of a German Christmas Market. She would tell him that he was looking at people differently, almost suspiciously, that he seemed a bit more “rough around the edges” from his time in Ethiopia. He would simply smile. They would bask in the simple delights of a nearby arcade. He won most of the air hockey, she won most of the Connect Four, and they both won at the crane machine when he snagged a giant yellow PacMan that she would eventually hug for the entire length of the Atlantic.

They would sleep-in to their hearts’ content at their Waterloo rental before running across the London Tower Bridge and ice skating at Somerset House. She would smile and turn to him at left, say how nice it was to run alongside him again, and he would respond, “Ditto.” She would hold onto his coattails on the ice and make airplane sounds as he towed her around the rink. Minutes later, they would become a Christmas card. The next morning, they would exchange future family heirlooms of wood & glue & bottle caps & eucalyptus bark & feathers & photographs & papier-mâché.

On Boxing Day, they would venture into North London. Throughout the ride, they would grow increasingly suspicious that they would be spending the next three nights anywhere near, let alone on, some measurable amount of water. They would sigh at the narrow waterway barely visible through the gated entrance of Wenlock Basin, and gaze unto the canal with grave uncertainty as their cab disappeared along the windy Islington road. They would sigh again as her aunt emergred, seemingly out of nowhere, inching toward them. A motorcycle accident many years prior had left her right leg in relative disrepair. They would haul their 90 kilos upon the stern of the musty mustard narrow boat under the willow tree before local English brews, fresh game pie, mulled cider, fried fish, and hot toddies.

The next day, they would take their first double-decker and sit in the back corner of the top deck. They would gaze out the window with infantile fascination as the big red bus wound its way through ancient neighborhoods and take pictures of themselves making silly faces. They would stroll Piccadilly Circus in the ebb & flow of holiday crowds and take pictures of each other in the glow of Christmas décor. She would say he looked cute. He would say she looked cuter. Before taking in dinner and a brief tour of SoHo, they would wander in to a lively pub and order pints from a snarky bartender. He would assure her that this place was a far cry from the classic London pubs they yearned to explore. They would later hop their second double-decker and sit in the front row of the top deck and sip Jack Daniels from a plastic juice bottle. They would spot a fox roaming Islington before calling it a night, only to wake up at 8:14 somewhere the next morning.

Fifty-five feet long and barely wide enough for him not to touch opposing sides with arms extended, her aunt’s mustard narrow boat, one of hundreds along Southwark Canal, was itself of a different age. At one time, it would have spread goods throughout the city, navigating a catacomb network of canals, pulled along by towpath mules and propelled through tunnels by men on their backs pressing their feet against the apex. Now it sat, swaying just enough to trick his brain into thinking he was still on the boat while he occupied some confined space on dry land, such as a bathroom or a shower stall.

He would say something he shouldn’t have and she would refuse to wait in a forty-five minute line. He would smirk and simply retort, “Let’s go for a walk.” She would follow him, hesitantly, as they wound their way into St. John’s Wood. He would joke that they were going to see a cricket match when she insisted to know their destination. Her forehead would furrow as they passed The Lord’s Cricket Grounds.

“See,” he would quip, “I told you we were going to see a cricket match.”

She would raise a perplexed eyebrow as he turned toward the gate that a guard proceeded to open, and again insist to know where they were headed when he veered just before passing through. “It’s a surprise,” he would say, “but it’s worth it.” She would squint with added confusion as they approached a camera clad crowd gathered round a crosswalk before realizing where they were. They would observe from a distance before showing the world what John Lennon had been saying all along.

They would finally part ways before she passed through security. He would watch through a mist until she collected her carry-on, blowing kisses. She would disappear to the left and reemerge to find him still standing in the distance for one last glance. Minutes would pass before he would take his first steps toward Terminal 3, just in case he might see her smile one more time. It was 8:14 somewhere, on a cloudy gray morning, in the confines of a musty mustard North London narrow boat, unseen by the rest of the world.


  1. Quite a love story, time seemed to stand still for you both....at exactly 8:14 somewhere!

  2. Beautifully told. All you do need is love. And maybe a musty mustard. And a timepiece at 8:14.

  3. Beautiful, Joe.
    Maybe next trip you can occupy a four storied house in The Hague and cruise the canals in Amsterdam, at 9:15 somewhere.

  4. Thanks Joe, for this third/first-person account. It adds so much to my understanding of English canal narrow boats than the Travel Channel (Chunnel?) episode of "extreme house boats" I watched recently.