Concrete Jungle

Sometimes the longest-standing problems can be solved in mere minutes. In this case it was the time it took for me to go to the toilet.

Rich had just returned from three weeks’ work at his dad’s (I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to have him back, and with no more long trips away to anticipate) and I had to work at the evening launch of a book festival, so we met up for a drink afterwards, supposedly together. In practice the drink happened from opposite ends of the cafe, and while I befriended the bored barman who was constructing a castle from coffee stirrers, Rich stood in the rain calling an expert whose number I’d begged from Marcus and Freya, whose magnificent boat “Grayhound” he helped to build a couple of years ago. Another possible lead on the terrible concrete issue, another voice in the discordant chorus of opinions that ring through our heads while we’re trying to work it out. When Rich returned he was not much wiser, and freshly stressed by the whole thing.

So, to recap (sorry, you must be terribly bored of this by now) – we have a boat with a large patch of diesel spilt in the aft cabin, on one side much more than the other. It has been there for years, and it can’t be cleaned off, except from the surface where it will inevitably return since it is soaked through. Sulphate tests show that it has a higher content than it should by about 50%. The diesel has not, as it might have, made the concrete soft, but we don’t know if it has made it brittle. We could have a stress test (which would tell us if it’s brittle) or we could have a petrographic test (which would tell us some of what’s going on at a microscopic level) but these things would cost money and mean making more holes in the boat which would then have to be repaired. They would also not tell us what damage might be done by the diesel still being there in the future, but then nothing can. We don’t think we can epoxy and glass it, judging by tests we’ve done and other advice we’ve received. We could smash the entire area out and replaster it, doing a practice run first on some rebar and mesh, but this would take a lot of time and we would need help. We could ignore it. This has been the dominant conversation of our boat-talk for the last few months, and of trips out when people inevitably ask us “how’s the boat?” or the many half-drunk chats or coffee musings I’ve shared with boatfolk in Rich’s absences.

And that night, it was crunch time. It was “let’s make a decision or we’ll both go mad”. It was “I love you and I don’t want to put you in harm’s way” met with the never-helpful “I trust you and I’ll go with whatever you decide” peppered with “what if?… oh no we can’t do that”, the same damn format we’ve filled so many times. We took a breath. I asked Rich “how would you feel in six months if we had done this…” “how would you feel if we did that…” and he answered as honestly as he could imagine. When we got back to mine I felt a decision was needed. If it’s that unsure, why don’t we just smash out those bits and rebuild them? It’ll be hard, particularly in some really awkward places, but then at least we could be confident about the aft cabin and get on with the real and long overdue jobs of getting the boat in sailing order. Rich agreed, and hell, we’ve been through enough setbacks, it’s just one more, and it’s action – doing something about it rather than just worrying. And then I went off for a wee.

When I got back, Rich asked me “how would you feel in six months time if we’d just said “sod it” and painted over the diesel?” and I told him “fine, as long as I knew you were happy about it – it’s what most people have advised and I’m genuinely more scared of the fact that our home is going to have a massive piece of wood that could bust my ribs apart swinging about on it”. Yeah, for all I know, I still know nothing – how bloody dangerous a boom is I’ll learn at some point, I’m sure. And he said “Well, I’ve been thinking about that winter when we were on the slip. The boat bashed down really hard on it when we floated, and pretty hard against the wall too. I couldn’t stand it. If it was a wooden boat, I’d have been worried about popping a plank. But there wasn’t a single crack in the concrete. I think it’ll be okay”. And I agreed.

With that decision, our limbo-wading worries were gone. With that, a new line of research and plotting and muttering was cast – what paint now, what price, what weather conditions. Rich went to grab my laptop. “You’re putting on some telly, or you’re not touching that thing” I calmly demanded. One night of rest before a new mania sets in, that’s all I ask.

Existence in the abandoned infirmary, though quite basic in ways, is very different to boat life. It doesn’t bob, like Gwen used to, but I’m regretfully used to that now. The shower and toilet are inside the same building, joy of joys, and when you fancy a bite to eat or a new pair of socks the shops of Mutley plain are but a two minute walk away. The rain and stormy winds affect us not, and the huge room I inhabit is big enough for swing dance practice, callisthenics and bouncing about to the radio – something I also attempt in the cramped boat with occasional disastrous consequences. The strangest difference for me in city life is the absence of people I know – I bump in to nobody on the way to the shower, am never lured in to a coffee or a breakfast by people I pass in the street, and I run in the park and nobody but the drunkard on the park bench calls out a hello. To have this wonderful anonymity is also to have nowhere to escape from it.

The place is clearly falling apart about our ears, and there are dripping taps and crumbling paint at every turn. One fellow tenant told me he’s planning to move out because he just wants to live somewhere with running hot water again. I suppressed a laugh – I haven’t had hot running water for a year and a half, and I’d all but forgotten that it’s the norm. I’m happy to be here, but only because I know that eventually I’ll be back full-time on Gwen, where I was so happy to stay with Richard this weekend. The building is awaiting a buyer now that it has been granted planning permission to become accommodation for the huge student population that pay my wages, so it too will soon be facing a different fate. I’ll give it to Christmas and then decide whether I can hack it, my job, the whole Plymouth thing. And at the same time, try to contribute to Gwen in every way I can possible. It occurred to me today that while I am in my longest ever relationship with Richard, I am also in a long term relationship with that damned lovely boat. And now she’s going somewhere… let’s not get unrealistic, there will of course be more setbacks, there ALWAYS are, but she’s going somewhere towards going somewhere. It’s a great feeling.

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