Morning on the Canal – by Ana Barreau

Primrose Hill Short Story Entry

Alice leans her shoulder into the door up to the deck, careful not to spill her steaming mug of tea as she stoops out of the Wild Iris and into the cool morning. Last year about this time you would have found her in bed, pillow over her head trying to muffle the echoing “ding ding” of cyclists whizzing under the bridge on their way to very important places. Last year, Alice preferred evenings on the deck to mornings on the deck. At the end of a summer day, after tucking Freddy into his baby box (he used to fit in a box!), she would take a plastic glass, crouch down in front of the sink, and fill it from a giant box of white wine. Glug, glug, glug, and the plop of ice cubes. Mary Ellen and John from the rusty Andrina would often join her, tottering back down the path when the sky had finally darkened, the babble of neighbours had died down, and light from the street lamps danced like stars on the murky canal. They had been the first to leave, not tempted by the promise of warm April weather. In the blink of an eye, they battened down the hatches and hopped on a direct train to Milton Keynes to weather the storm with their daughter and her family.

One by one the canal people vanished until Alice came out onto the deck to no one at all. The golden sunlight of a spring evening poured down on lines of dark boats sulking in both directions. Mornings were starting to grow on her though. When the giant box of wine ran dry she ended up replacing it with giant boxes of breakfast tea. The misty mornings are the best. From her deck she can barely make out the Gloucester Road bridge and the trees hanging over the water make her believe she could be in the Amazon, floating over a river filled with hungry piranhas. Fewer people walk by on these morning, fewer worrying coughs and panting runners.

Today is bright and clear. Alice forces a small smile and nod to a woman walking by the Wild Iris, so close she could bend over and touch her. She has seen this one before – always in a black jumpsuit and white trainers, always stopping to take pictures of the boats, the wild roses, the coots – as if she had not realised it had all been in her backyard the whole time. At least this woman had the sense to come alone in the beginning of the day before the cooped up masses, manic from the lockdown rules and the uncertainty of it all, start roving along the canal and setting up camp around the bridges.

Alice turns her back to the towpath, dangling her legs over the edge of the boat so that they skim the water as it drifts sleepily along. She used to enjoy watching the world flow past – school groups heading to the zoo, tourists looking for Camden, the long-haired busker who played Beatles and Oasis under the bridge. Now as the days melt into each other she has fallen into a cycle: Timid camaraderie with the morning walkers who tend to march purposefully forward on their prescribed outdoor constitutional. Grudging acceptance for those who came out around noon, often on their phones stopping in the middle of the towpath say “Sorry, you dropped out there, could you please repeat that?” or some less polite version of the same thing. You can’t get a signal just before the bend in the canal. In the afternoons, she packed up Freddy’s playpen and they retreated into the belly of the Iris. Who knows how the virus really spreads, but it is impossible to keep two metres distance on the towpath, especially with spring pushing in on one side green and pink and white.

Her tea is half way gone. Alice takes a pebble from the pile she and Freddy spent yesterday morning collecting and drops it into the canal. A satisfying plunk breaks the morning quiet as the pebble hits the water. She can follow the trail of white bubbles as it sinks all the way down to nestle between the weeds and glinting beer cans. Freddy never tires of tossing pebbles into the canal. She loves the sound of his burbling laugh at the sight of the little splashes. Can he sense the change? Surely, he misses the neighbours cooing over his curly hair. Surely, he feels her arms tense around him when someone walks a little too close. Alice peers down through the window by the door and she can see his little chest puffing up and down, still asleep.

Someone flicks a light on in the basement flat just across the canal. The one of the coots (probably the mother) paddles by with a great stick in its beak, bobbing toward the nest tucked into the bushes and trash just a few metres before the bridge. The sun is already cutting through the drooping foliage above her head. Alice drinks the last of her tea and places the empty mug on the deck. It is going to be a hot one.

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