It’s the last day of November and, caught out by the early sunset, I am driving my houseboat in the star-stung darkness. The metal of the ladder in the canal lock is almost too cold to hold with bare hands, bringing to mind the cautionary tale from my dad’s childhood about the kid who got his tongue stuck on a metal bridge. An otherworldly cold: a cold that evokes places far away in space and time.
I go through the lock with a stranger. We pace around, blowing into our cupped hands to keep warm, waiting on either side of the lock chamber for it to fill up so we can lower the paddles and continue our journey. Croxley Moor stretches out to our right, shrouded in fog; a near-empty Watford-bound Metropolitan line train crosses the arched railway bridge. Behind us lies the boat that’s something of a mythical creature on the London waterways: the one with the car welded on top of the back deck, which travels in tandem with the hot-pink narrowboat with windows covered in animal-rights stickers.
I know this place better than anywhere in the world; and yet my voice leads my fellow boater to take me for an American, prompting him to ask me, “So what do you think about Trump?”
“I’m scared like everyone else,” I say in a tone of voice that I’m hoping will both suggest kinship and deter him from pursuing the topic any further. Some moments, I feel, should just be between us as individuals, the beauty and frailty of our own little lives under the stars.
Past the lock, the canal has frozen over. Driving out in front of me, the other boat gets stuck in the ice for some time, revving furiously back and forth in an attempt to free itself. I overtake it. The ice makes an eerie squeaking, silvery sound as I drive, tectonic plates shifting all around me: a White-Witch-in-frozen-Narnia sound.
I’m half telling myself off for driving in the dark in this weather, which can be genuinely dangerous. But I’m also feeling the smugness that tends to come with these kinds of capers: passing lit-up houses in which people are safely ensconced in front of prime-time television, I think to myself: no one else sees this place like this. The white flash of a heron’s wings (startled by my presence, taking flight from the bank) like a benediction in the darkness, bats whirring in erratic patterns around me: all these are gifts for me alone, one-off slivers of time and place there for the taking.
I feel aware too of how, to the rare passerby on the towpath, my boat is a similar ghostly visitation. At the last lock of my journey, an Indian woman, toddler on her hip, helps me to get the gate unstuck. When I ask her for help, she is tentative at first, and I have to give her very precise instructions: duck your head to go under that fence, walk down the grass hill, come to me. She watches as the heavy lock gate, creaking, yields in our direction, astonished at the effect of her one second’s worth of effort. “That’s all you needed?” she asks. “That’s all,” I say, “I can go through now.” She and her child stand hand in hand, staring after me as I drive off.
For a moment, I feel as if, in some way, I have anchored this stranger in her own world: reminding her of something that’s existed alongside her all the time, unnoticed.
Every two weeks, I change the location of my home, moving along a string of canal-side villages in the green commuter belt west of London, after several years of exploring other waterways with the same methodical approach.
The key to transience, I’ve found, is to make more of an effort to belong than the locals—to seek out those things about a place that will tell you about its spirit and specificity. And so I join local Facebook groups and check the noticeboard on the high street; I go to town meetings and open-mic nights. I join the volunteers for Saturday-morning litter-picking in Cassiobury Park; I go to the weekly jazz night at the Services Club in King’s Langley.
I ask people questions, and take note of the reasons a place is mocked or loved—which often amounts to the same thing. (This summer I made a post to the Berkhamsted Facebook group after a night out saying, “What good, pray, are castle ruins and vintage designer garb if you can’t get a drunken kebab anywhere at 3 o’clock in the morning?” It got over fifty likes and sparked off heated debate among locals about the best kebab within driving distance, and I took an absurd pride in it, feeling like I’d “cracked” the place somehow.)
I aggressively patronise a local café or pub from the first day, because, as a boater, my eyes are forever scanning the room for a socket where I can charge my devices on shorepower, and because it pleases me to be remembered, to have someone nearby who knows how I take my coffee.
And I make my private, peculiar relationship with the place, which often consists of seeking out those things about it that are incongruous and evocative of my other homes: the inexplicable fairy-doors at the base of tree-trunks along a certain stretch of the towpath; the wildlife farm where, when you stand on the bridge and crane your neck, you can just make out pelicans preening themselves; the swamp cypresses in Cassiobury Park, echoing the wetlands of Louisiana.
One by one, all of the towns on the map are lit up like a string of lanterns. At its best, that’s what the canal feels like: warmth and spirit running luminous through the whole country.
But it’s a tricky balancing act—being rooted and restless. As a child, traveling with my parents I would thoroughly unpack even for one-night stays in hotels, making little altars everywhere. But then, too, the things that I used to make my home referred back to other places: seashells from the last beach we’d been to, chestnuts from the last forest.
Part of my wandering predicament is that I seem to find myself forever looking over one shoulder at the last life left behind. I wake up out of sync, thinking: if only I could get doughnuts on Lafayette, I’d be ready to start the day—only to remember I’m now back in the land of fry-ups: the string of lights a tangle as I struggle to work out where I am and who I’m supposed to be.
Tonight I’m driving to Croxley, but really I’m driving to LA: I’m driving to the place where my boatsitter will take over from me in a few days’ time so that I can head to the other side of the world and resume the life I have over there.
It seems I’m always playing homes off against each other. Wherever I am, at some point I find myself thinking in bewilderment, “I can’t wait to tell everyone about this when I get back home.” Wherever I am, I’m the foreigner, constantly asked to recount what lies on the other side.
But that’s not a straightforward question. Your visitor mooring runs out, your visa expires, the other half of your life calls you back or forward—and places slip and shift in your absence.
Nowhere is that clearer than on the canal. A group of boats arrive and conjure their own village—logs chopped into neat stacks of kindling on the bank; a motorbike parked discreetly beneath a tree—and then, just as suddenly, all that’s gone again and it’s just a stretch of towpath, mud-slick soil and black water, opaque, sullen, devoid of the spirit that had imbued it. You can’t step into (moor on) the same river twice, and all that.
There’s a lucid thread running from me to my other home on the other side of the world, but that too is no longer the place I left behind—effectively I am adrift; neither here nor there; spinning through space. Looking up at the constellations I’m already picturing myself back up there among them, piercing the tinfoil with my plastic fork to get to my mid-flight supper and watching the cursor crawl across the screen telling us where we are in the world.
During the next few days, I walk around the early-December landscape, noting the crackle of the frost beneath my feet, dried-up stalks of reed standing at attention: the summer dispersed now, like thistledown. I notice every detail, partly because it’s my mind taking stock of everything I’m about to leave behind.
I think back to driving with Kira weeks before, speeding down the dike in the landscape I grew up in as I tucked autumn leaves between the pages of my notebook, planning to send them to Dori, Dori in the desert that retains the same palette throughout the year.
“I keep wondering this season,” I said to Kira, “if autumn is always this stunning, or if I’ve just never noticed like this before.” For the millionth time, I recalled that T.S. Eliot quote from The Four Quartets: “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” That’s what it comes down to: touching down somewhere briefly enough to retain sight of its strangeness—to tend to that strangeness like a fire, a gift to be passed on.
My dad, when I was little, would go away by himself for stretches of time, to write and think out in the wilds of Sweden. Often, right before he headed back, he’d send a postcard with the words “Which will reach you first: this card… or your dad?” Sometimes it was one; sometimes it was the other.
And so I keep hoarding meaning and minutiae; I keep sending pieces of myself across the world hoping that eventually I’ll get them to line up; that at some point I’ll get all of me in one place at the same time.
I spend an evening hammering out my thoughts in the local pub. When I remove my headphones and begin to pack up my things, two mildly-drunk guys at the bar turn to me. “Excuse me,” opens the most boisterous of the two of them, a short, dark-haired Irishman. “Can we ask you a question? Are you a time traveler?”
I laugh: I haven’t gotten that one before. “Something like that,” I say.
“Because we thought”—they point at my bowler hat, my laptop, the raggedy, steampunk coat hanging from my chair—“you might be the next Doctor Who, sent from the future.”
“Damn!” I say. “You’re onto my secret.”
“So what’s the future like?” the other guy asks. He cups his hand around his mouth, leans towards the tiny blonde bartender and says in a hushed tone, “She’s a time traveler.” She, seemingly thrown by this sudden foray into surrealism, asks “Is she? Is she really?”
“It’s an interesting place, I can tell you that much. But I can’t give away my secrets of the trade,” I say.
“But go on, tell us something,” says the Irishman. “Is there a future? You know—after Trump?”
It’s still a conversation had in jest, but suddenly I feel very aware of my American accent, of how I must come across to them. The fact of the matter is I’m neither a time traveler nor an American—with my Dutch passport and my confused allegiances—but to them I stand there as a representative of another world, being asked for a reassurance that I’m just as hungry for myself.
And so I do what’s required of me as the stranger: I give people the world, I reflect its beauty back. “Of course there’s a future,” I say. “You’d be surprised.”
Emma Rault is a writer and translator who belongs to many places, including Cologne in Germany, the Netherlands, LA, and a canal boat on the waterways of London. Her writing has appeared in Bitch Media, Shooter Literary Magazine and Rivet Journal, among others.