the days are long enough to travel three hours by train
to walk with you from Top Lock to Bottom Lock:
a descent of sixteen locks should give us time to talk.
The noon sun is hot on the cobblestones, already,
and I’m so happy to be here with you after all you’ve been through.
The locks are corridors of nature, you say, see the plants
growing from the brickwork – I peer down into the cool chamber
where liverwort, ferns, tiny mosses creep across the walls –
yet once this was England’s Silicon Valley.
I can imagine it – new ideas, big machines, everything kicking off
and the confidence of Mr Samuel Oldknow of Stockport
who diverted the river to power his muslin mill. He was the force
that carved this channel through the land, a man of such ambition
and so determined to drive the water uphill. He’d know that trade
was all about saving time; he trusted earthworks, barrows
and brickdust to secure his fortune.
You tell me it’s been a bit of a rollercoaster, actually,
what with the sudden surgery, then the news from the hospital
– difficult news were the words you used when you wrote to me.
Below us the locks unfold: here at Top Lock
two waterways join and a fingerpost directs us four ways.
You show me how the towpath loops round and over itself
in a curious slope designed so a horse could cross the canal
in the days before boats had engines. There are things I want to ask
but I don’t know if you want to tell me. I even made notes on the train,
to prevent me saying anything that would cause you pain –
they seem irrelevant already. It’s important just to be here,
close to your tender body, which this short walk will tire,
to hear you say, It is really incredible what people can do,
given time. You point out Posset Bridge, so-called
because Oldknow bought the builders breakfast
to ensure they worked against the clock. Down some steps
we pass under one of the bridge’s three arches.
This arch was for the horse – there’s one midstream –
and a third which led to Oldknow’s own canal,
the lime kilns. He was a benign boss, by most accounts.
I stop to read a plaque on a wall
but what’s recorded there you’ve already told me, better,
and we move on. We talk of treatment, and how six months of chemo
will make you tired and sick and vulnerable to germs.
They say avoid infections, but that will be impossible
with the children at nursery. We cross the aqueduct
which spins the canal out to a thin brown thread –
the water shining in the sun, so high above the gorge
when we look over, down to the bright leaves of the sycamores
my brain reels. Hello girls, says an old man jogging past,
bringing us back to a world free of secrets and fear.
You say that teenagers jump off the edge here,
the council are thinking of putting up railings.
Why shorten life by falling out of it? Vertigo is
a condition, not a feeling. We talk of Baden-Powell,
of beaver cubs and badges. We do not talk of politics
like last time. We talk of museums and ice-houses
and cold-water immersion, and you know, if you want someone
to come with you to hospital I’d be glad to. Did you know
that Oldknow’s boat was called Perseverance?
Another lock, another corridor of nature and you tell me that
people are basically very kind, in hospital even the patients
who were on a drip still wanted to help others less able,
pushing a button for the nurse to come, and a fat bulldog is waddling towards us,
hello, we both greet it, at the same moment, and the back gardens
of the little almshouses are beautiful. Ahead of us
a man opens the lock gate for his narrowboat, Halcyon.