In summer it was a pleasure to walk along the banks of Ashborough and Greythorpe canal. Wild flowers covered the grass that lined the towpath, butterflies swooped on the currents between them. Where once old factories stood, nature was slowly regaining its former territory, in the time-honoured way. Fish swam in the water, where once only cars and shopping trollies dared to lurk. In the height of summer, it was busy down on the canal. Children laughed and ran, only to be scolded about falling in by their anxious parents. Fisherman sat with their boxes of writhing multi-coloured maggots, heads down with faces in a permanent scowl at the interruption to their silence. Flies buzzed around just above the water, provoking fish to occasionally rise to the surface in search of a meal.
Autumn and winter were totally different. It was much quieter, the feeling of dereliction returned to the air. No flowers added colour, the crumbling factories looked deserted, like foundations of a long-forgotten civilisation. The occasional runner plied their trade running head down, oblivious to the world, with their Bluetooth headsets providing each with their own idea of music. The occasional fisherman sat but despite the lack of interruptions didn’t seem to be much happier.
Today was one of those days that people stayed inside or in the nearby shopping centre. Its brightly lit and warm malls, the perfect antidote for such a dreary day. Drizzle, or mizzle as the locals called it, coated everywhere with a cold dampness that was refreshing at first but very quickly you tired off as the mizzle got everywhere, making you feel uncomfortable. Only a few brave fools found their way down here. They had to have some business or real reason.
Rocky Storm sure looked a picture as he strode along the path heading towards Dingley locks. He wished he didn’t have to be here, but needs must when his mother called. He should be at college today, but one of his mum’s dog walkers had phoned in ill and he had to step once more into the breech. At weekends and holidays Rocky made cash by helping in the family firm. The ‘premier’ dog walking business in Ashborough his mum called it. He was pretty sure it was the only dog walking firm in town, but his mum was proud of what she’d built up to supplement income from their pet shop.
Sometimes his mum was infuriating. Not only had she saddled him with such a weird name, a reference to some cheesy film she’d seen as a teenager, but she thought he could just drop college whenever one of her dog escorts pulled a sickie. Since his dad had died though, she’d worked hard to keep the house despite his fathers gambling debts. The business had kept them going, so he couldn’t begrudge his mother.
He just wished she hadn’t bought all her ‘escorts’ bright pink jackets with ‘Fancy Walkies’ on the back with a phone number. The calls they’d had was almost as bad as when she’d launched a new venture selling dog clothes. Maybe ‘Doggy Fashion’ hadn’t been the best name.
So here he was on a dank grey day in Ashborough, a name that lived up to the greyness today, walking someone’s prize poodle along the canal. To add to his misery, this one had a pink bow in it for good measure. He just prayed he didn’t meet anyone he knew.
Turing the bend he saw the solitary figure of a fisherman, the first he’d seen all day. As he approached he realised it was Mr Haydock who lived down the street from them. Rocky remembered how his dad and he used to go fishing with Bert Haydock when he was small. Bert was retired now and was down here most days.
“Hello, My Haydock, fish biting today?” Rocky greeted.
Bert Haydock slowly cocked his head up at Rocky to check who it was.
“Oh, hi there Rocky. Walking the dogs again. That one looks a reet handful.” A short laugh dissolved into a racking cough that shook the old man’s body with each cough.
“You sound as though you shouldn’t be here, can I help you?”
“Nay… it’s just t’coal slake that’s in me lungs. Plays up on days like these.”
That and the twenty cigarettes a day, Rocky thought but didn’t say. The local pit must have closed over twenty years ago. He liked Bert though and wouldn’t hurt him by saying anything.
“Should you be here then?” Rocky asked anxiously.
“It’s either this or bein’ home. Mavis drives me mad ‘alf the time,” Bert paused, and his face softened, “I guess I do same to her. No son, it’s better this way.”
Bert lit a cigarette and at the first breath started coughing again.
“Ah that’s better.”
“Caught anything?” Rocky asked again.
“Nah lad, not had a nibble for days now. Something must be keeping the fish away, or they escaped through the next lock. Either that or fish poachers.”
“Fish poachers?” Rocky replied.
“Aye, they come down at night and stun t’fish with electricity. Then they fish ‘em out and sell ‘em to a fish farm or some land owner on t’cheap.”
“Why fish then?”
“Sumert to do, and it keeps me away from our Mavis. I never catch owt anyway.” He laughed which again turned into a bout of coughing.
“Are you sure you shouldn’t be home? Rocky persisted, “I can help you with your stuff?”
“Nay it’s alreet lad, you’ve got enough to worry about with tha’ posh pooch.”
“I better be getting along,” Ricky said as the dog stopped sniffing the grass and had turned its attention to the maggots. Petunia’s owner wouldn’t take kindly to her little baby eating them. He guessed she fed her only the best meat available.
“Aye, sithee Rocky lad.”
Rocky continued leading the poodle along the canal. He turned back at a curve and waved goodbye to the old fisherman. The next stretch of the canal was the loneliest, even on hot summer days. It entered a cut, the sides going sharply up. Even when the sun was out, its rays hardly ever reached the bottom. Halfway along was a bricked up old entrance to a pit canal. His dad had told him that coal had been brought down the tunnel to the dock here and then loaded onto barges until a collapse had brought the tunnel down on top of ten men. Their bodies had never been recovered, a weather worn plaque on the wall paid homage to them.
It was cold at the bottom of the cut, maybe the temperature had fallen or was it atmosphere. The canal water looked darker here, almost coal black. Rocky could imagine it hadn’t been an easy place to work. Petunia’s ears went back and she pulled on the lead to carry on, as if drawn by an urge to leave the cut. There seemed something different today, probably the weather, but Rocky too didn’t want to spend any more time around here that was necessary.
Exiting the cut was like returning to normality. It was still drizzly, but the air at least tasted better. However Rocky still felt uncomfortable. It was as though someone was following him, or he was being watched. He kept checking behind him, but no one was there. He just wanted to get the dog back to the owner now. The atmosphere down here felt unpleasant. The dog too seemed to sense it too and rather than dallying as before, it walked swiftly by his side.
Up ahead were Dingley locks. There was a figure sat on the lock gates. Maybe that was what Rocky had sensed, even though he was sure it was behind him. Squinting through the drizzle, he recognised him as a friend of Amie’s, Daniel. He’d met him at the pub with her last week. He put his hand up to wave, but Daniel didn’t appear to see him. He was talking on the phone.
Petunia started growling at something, then she slipped the leash and jumped over a crumbling wall.
“Sh*t” he exclaimed as he went after Petunia. He caught her up sniffing around a tree that was growing in the middle of an old works.
“Stupid mutt” he said grabbing hold of the lead once more, “come on let’s get you home.”
He set off back to the canal, but Petunia dug in her heels and didn’t move.
“Come on, we can’t go any other way.”
She still didn’t move. Obviously, she didn’t want to go back. Rocky picked her up, thankful it wasn’t a great dane. How he would have persuaded one of them to go on, he didn’t like to think. He reached the wall and dropped back onto the towpath. Keeping a good hold of the leash he put Petunia down. This time she seemed OK.
He looked up to the lock and saw Daniel must have gone. Ah well, he wouldn’t have to explain the poodle and pink coat to him now. As they approached the lock, Petunia put her paws down again and wouldn’t move. Reluctantly Rocky picked her up and set off down a path that led back to the main road. He’d had enough of the canal, the wet weather and the stupid dog.
Behind him in the lock a large water bubble broke in water as if a large fish had come up to catch a fly.