"Stop wriggling!" shouted Henry as the boat once again sank back under the water "port side down, all hands on decks!"
This was the comical scene, yesterday afternoon, as Henry, Ruth and myself were single handedly saving the barque from sinking to the bottom of the Charente river. Our tiny village, you see, has it's own river ferry system to take people from one side of the river to the other.
Originally crafted so that the people from one side of the river could come across to the other side (where we now live) and pay their respects in the 12th century church that sits in our part of the village, the Barque is a hugely important part of the commune. The church is known locally as 'The Jewel in the Charente' and is an ancient priory founded by the benedictines of Charroux. And the Barque, to most people, is of equal standing in this magical heritage.
It's crafted from huge chunks of oak, and is 3m long by 1.5m wide. I've regularly seen ramblers, families, friends, and mountain bikers with up to 3 bikes at a time pull themselves across the river with childlike joy. I'd fallen in love with our house the moment I set foot in it, but it was when the vendor wisely took us down to the barque and showed us how to traverse the river that the deal was done - that was my personal jewel in the charente.
So you can imagine my horror when, earlier in the morning I'd completed my hour long walk with Hamish, my dog, to find that I was all but stranded on the wrong side of the river because the Barque was just about filled with water. There was only a few centimetres still above the water - but we had no other option. We managed to get across (we must have looked a sight though - me with my white trousers rolled up, barefoot with sandles in hand, balancing precariously on the back of the boat and pulling with all my might to take me, the barque and the dog across the river, with Hamish all the while trembling and howling at the back because he's frightened of the water!). Playing in the river were two French teenagers who were clearly amused by the scene, watching our every move with no offer of help or encouragement. Once we finally reached dry land, the boys in the river gave me a wry smile and the typical Charantais shrug, adding "there's nothing we can do you know, it's up to the Mayor!"
"Of course there's something we can do!" I snorted "I live here, and this crossing is partly my responsibility - I'll be back!" (Arnie is never far from me in times of need). They shrugged again, smirked and dived in to the deeper water, swimming off chattering and laughing together.
I went home and called in the cavalry. My son was at in his room, and was naturally the first person to hear about my concern. Now, Dylan has been brought up with my ethos that anything is possible, and sometimes I smile that even despite that, the French 'rules and control training' sometimes shows itself. At school the teachers delight in instructing the pupils that they'll never amount to much, and really shouldn't expect much out of life. "Rules are rules, and if you manage to secure a good job, which most of you won't, you'll be very lucky if you can earn as much as €1,000 a month by the time you get to the top." Talk about dashing dreams and keeping people in their place!
And so yesterday, Dylan's first reaction was to go and tell the Mayor and ask what should be done. That was fine, off he went on his bike and I started making plans. At the same time, Henry and Ruth just happened to pop by for a cup of tea - Henry, you'll remember, is the miracle man who totally healed after breaking his back last year. I explained that we needed a team to bail out the barque, and in true British style, Henry's eyes lit up as he rallied the team "come on" he said, "we can do this together!"
And so it was that the three of us, Ruth, Henry and myself, trooped down to the river bank with buckets in hand. Leaving a note for Dylan, we strode along with the certain smell of victory in our nostrils.
The Barque, as I've said before, evokes a magical child like quality in most people. Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island, and Pirates of the Caribbean all seem to come alive at that extraordinary setting. So with a loud "Heave ho me hearties!" we pulled the by now all but sunken boat in to the shore.
The still swimming French teenagers, were looking a bit sheepish at this stage, and the shrugs had become more pronounced. I decided it was a clear sign of guilt, as they must have been jumping off the barque to make it sink still further. "There's a new Barque being built anyway for September" they offered.
"Well we're still only in July, and we have to do something to save our Barque now!" I countered - with a little more courage than earlier on since I now had the cavalry with me, and we would not be taking prisoners if anyone tried to stop us.
Ruth held the boat in place, and Henry and I hunkered down at the river's edge to start bailing out the water. Each wrong move meant one side of the boat would go back under the water, so we gingerly balanced ourselves, gritted our teeth and sank the buckets in to the boat. It didn't seem to make much difference for a while, and the teenagers were starting to smirk in a "told you so" sort of a way, that just made us more determined.
"We'll fight them on the beaches!" "We're British, you know!" "Aye aye captain!" and all sorts of other encouraging phrases started coming from all of us and, little by little the boat started to raise out of the water.
Henry noticed there were large holes that had appeared at one end, and that the water was coming in nearly as fast as we were bailing it out. The teenagers were also on the bank with us by this time and shrugged and harrumphed "You see, it's pointless!" But they hadn't bargained on Pete's determination and expertise.
"I used to work in a shipbuilder's yard" he winked as he foraged around the bank looking for suitable things to plug the holes.
Dylan had joined us by that stage, and with a few strong plant roots and some expert manipulation, the holes were indeed filled. We were triumphant and the teenagers looked impressed. Now that's praise indeed, and Henry, quite rightly, stood a few inches taller as he soaked up the admiring noises and nods that were heading his way. They then joined in and helped us empty the remaining water, and we all stood back on the riverbank to admire our handiwork together.
As we walked back home, it struck me that today we celebrate Bastille Day, when over 200 years ago, the determined French mob stormed the gates to free prisoners from the tyranny of the Bourbon monarchs. And I smiled to myself.
Our little crew by the river may not have been a mob, and we certainly weren't rioting - but perhaps, even in the face of apparent impossibility, our determined persistence to make a difference and get a result had helped in some way to free two French teenagers from the prisons of their own mind.