Treading Water

by Ian Humphreys

When I find myself slipping, I hold on
and remember what the canal taught me:
No journey is a straight line.
The last time we walked here together,

I reminded you that not long ago this canal
cut a dark scar through the Pennines, from Manchester
to Sowerby Bridge. Its future slippery, almost sunk.
But look at it now, you said. Look at the colours.

On a picnic bench by The Stubbing Wharf, you slipped
breaded scampi from your plate to mine. You always
ordered too much when eating out, loved to share
your good luck with family. I remember your smile.

I told you how horses hauled the cargo-heavy boats
back in the 1800s. How a wise farrier adapted the U
of a horseshoe with spiked nails to grip the towpath’s wet stone,
avoid slippage, fatalities. Steady now. I remember you

smiling at that first slip of water over wood at Lock 11.
It can take an eternity to fill a void. Look at the ferns thriving
deep in the chamber wall, how they hold firm,
soft fingers outstretched, drowned, until the flood recedes

and the sun revives them. I remember your love
for these brightly painted narrowboats, the way they garland
the canal bank like festival lanterns. Listen to the jackdaws.
Coal-black blurs slipping and tumbling above

the old mill chimney, their laughter echoing in its throat.
But where is our kingfisher? She must be close, waiting
to slip from a willow tree, to swoop and sip
her blue reflection, lighting up the day like a smile.