They’re on the navigation, somewhere near Broxbourne.
Ginny’s motor chugs as Andrew watches pylons spear a pastel-blue sky. The day is hot, late summer or early autumn, a final burst from an ebbing sun the colour of yolk. The skies are free of swifts and swallows now but the banks of the water are still stubbornly green. They pass cautious moorhens, archipelagos of scummy detritus, floating beer cans.
The crack-hiss of a ring-pull. Andrew has plucked a can from a plastic supermarket bag and hands the lukewarm lager to Simon who, for now, is pilot and navigator. Drink-boating seems to be acceptable.
Andrew opens one himself, the third of the day. There’s a dull wet metal clink as the two men toast the day out, declarations of how they should do this more, what a great idea, this is the way to travel, and so on.
They’re eventual destination is Tottenham Lock, to come ashore among brooding warehouses a short walk from grey concrete and the retail park (Staples, Burger King, Currys PC World etc.). In transit and between A and B, Andrew feels free.
They’ve arranged to pick up Jess at Cheshunt. An old Snuff song starts up as they move through the water. Simon downs a third of his can in one big gulp.
There was a night on the south coast by the blue waters of the channel. Andrew applies words like ‘pivotal’, ‘epiphany’ and ‘game-changer’ to it. After that, he started reading, things he wouldn’t go near before. Esoteric thought, different interpretations of experience, the far reaches of religious exploration (hippy shit, as he would once have called it). Andrew has always in some sense believed in the life of the mind, that human consciousness was at once both this huge and awesome, awful and terrifying thing.
I’m comfortable with duality, he thinks, and I know there is more to us than the quotidian realities we find ourselves in.
But as a cynic, a committed dweller in the no-nonsense and aggressive day-to-day of London, he’d always thought little about such things, and when he did, dismissed it as an irrelevance, or a step onto a path he could never see himself getting off from.
But after that evening on PK’s sofa, feeling like the narrator from Starmaker, suffering a minor epiphany, he began to read. It felt transgressive and seditious, an act of treachery to his former self.
He browsed the religion & spirituality section of his local Oxfam Books where he found a beaten paperback on Gnosticism and Gnosis.
This is what Andrew understood from his reading: The Gnostics believed that the true creator, the life essence inherent in all things, was essentially unknowable. What the Jews, Christians, Muslims, called god was only an artisan, a thing put in charge of the flawed material realm. Not a true creator, having been created itself. A being they called the demiurge. The material universe, the physical world, was evil, and as such, so was god. A mad and capricious architect.
As Ginny chugs slowly into London and Andrew stares drunkenly at the tangle of pylons, plants, locks and warehouses that crowd the banks of the navigation, you can see the Gnostics had a point. True beauty is unknowable, beyond the words we possess, yet it’s real nonetheless. He finds a cruelty in that.
Simon rolls another cigarette and sips from his can. A flash of parakeets screech overhead. Andrew watches the green birds and thinks: to believe whatever created the world we’re forced to exist in as benign - that is the fallacy.
Afternoon joggers trot past on the towpath. The bluetooth speaker sitting on the boat’s roof blares out old songs. Andrew, Simon and Jess moor themselves in a past that they just can’t let go of.
Andrew was a committed atheist once. Here’s the argument he carefully crafted and honed, one that he still thinks holds up:
If there is a battle between God and Satan, something must have created God also – else how could it be a battle? Unless God created Satan but did not have control over him. Which means God created evil and sent it out into the world. Or if God himself was created, whatever the true god is (that unknowable life essence we can find in Gnosticism, Hinduism, etc., what the neopythagoreans called The One) then as well as creating God, he also created Satan, i.e. evil. You end up back at the problem of a being that would willingly create evil and send it into the world. If not that, then there’s the Miltonic idea, where the Devil is almost presented sympathetically – it’s not his fault, right, if he was created to be that way? So either there is i) a flawed god who is not all powerful and in battle with Satan ii) a capricious god who created evil for unfathomable and possibly sadistic reasons or iii) no god.
‘I never fell in love ‘til I fell in love with you’, sings Jess softly to herself.
She’s sat cross-legged on Ginny’s roof, sipping from a whiskey miniature, her face glowing in the September sun. Something huge and saurian, flies over head, its stiff legs trailing. A grey heron. They’re always so silent and it looks, to Jess, like a model of itself.
On the south coast, he lay on PK’s sofa with the fourth hit of acrid DMT sending him spinning off somewhere far into oblivion. He doesn’t know where. But somewhere, somewhere real and if it wasn’t real then the fact that his own mind was capable of conjuring such things, that was a revelation in itself. There were vivid bright mandalas, then a feeling of panic, of what the fuck is going on, then death, then lift-off, transcendence.
Is it inevitable as you age? The hippy and new age stuff creeping in. Maybe that’s OK, better than trips to Homebase to fill those empty Sunday afternoons.
Simon’s ex was a classic example. Once crowned with a three foot green Mohawk, slurping down Tennent’s Super with the brew-crew on Brighton beach, before addiction, recovery, dreadlocks, veganism and kundalini yoga.
Andrew sips his beer below the pylons, thinking of mad creators as he watches a cormorant skim low over the water. He wishes he understood more and had the patience to read the books he’s earmarked online about the kabbalah, Gnostics, Wiccans and Sufis. Sometimes he marvels at the early monks committing slow suicide on Skellig Michael, the bloody mess made of the backs of Iranian dervishes. It occurs to him all transcendence requires some sort of death, of pain, and he wonders if he could ever truly commit to anything.
He remembers a drawing he once saw of the sephiroth interpreted as the London Underground, and he makes a mental note to track it down. Andrew has always felt there was more to know, some secret knowledge that would help all of us if we could only just access it for long enough to truly understand. That pulling down of the veil, the great god Pan and all that. The knowledge might be painful, traumatic, but it would be the truth.
Simon steers Ginny round a bend in the navigation, past two canoeists going at it like their competing in the Olympics. A teenage couple sit on a bench on the towpath, smoking slowly and flinging grit into the water. Simon waves to them and they look shocked.
At one of the many locks, an old Irish man comes out of nowhere to offer assistance where none is really needed. He looks like a cartoon of a school caretaker. There’s a woman with him, antipodean, wearing a shapeless multi-coloured jumper and she chats amiably with Simon, talking the talk of boat-people, something Andrew is no good at. Jess is on the opposite bank, waiting to push the gates when the time is right.
They stand by the lock as the water swirls and rushes and Andrew attempts to understand what the old Irishman is saying to him, but his mind cannot help but picture a demiurge cum handyman, a set of jangling keys hanging from a worn leather belt, each key opening some door of perception that he will never be privy to.
Right now all Andrew wants is to be out in the world, sipping on these lukewarm cans of lager, smoking endless rollies, watching the wide blue sky like some inverted ocean, threaded through with pylon wires, swimming with shoals of shrieking green parakeets. He can barely voice these concerns, these thoughts, and today (he’s happy here, truly) the presence of Simon and Jess, people who he’s known for so long and who he doesn’t have to explain himself to, is enough to make the whole damn world feel right. He wants to float on a lake of slowly imbibed booze, feel that scratch in his throat as he and Simon light up another fag, he wants to watch the cormorants, warehouses, cyclists, fellow boaters. Today he wants to be lost, and be among the lost.
Simon hops on to the boat’s roof and Andrew watches him slowly descending like a man condemned, lock-water boiling and churning
Jess shouts something over the din of the water but Andrew cannot hear her.
He pushes with all his weight on the lock gates, and Jess, his parallel, does the same. There’s a slight give and then the gates open like arms embracing. Ginny starts chugging again, Jess and Andrew jump from the cut onto the roof with a thump, and the journey continues.
As they drift towards London Andrew watches the antipodean woman and the old Irish man stand motionless, beneath the splayed legs of a towering pylon, silhouetted against a wide blue sky.