In her debut memoir Narrow Margins Marie Browne saved her family from financial ruin by moving her long-suffering husband three children and a dog on to a houseboat called Happy Go Lucky in search of a less stressful, alternative way of life.
Now in Narrow Minds the family find themselves sucked back into normality, they’re pretty much back where they started, horrible house, no boat and the kids are beginning to threaten mutiny.
Facing perky postmen, ice skating cows, psychotic villagers and outraged rodents, they’re running out of time, their financial situation is getting desperate and there’s every chance life has conspired against them to make sure they never get back afloat. Until they find the answer to their dreams lies with Minerva, a narrow boat even more run-down than the first. This hilarious follow-up shows the lengths to which a desperate woman will go just to restore her preferred lifestyle.
Shivering, stark naked and covered in semi-frozen cow poo, I realised that everybody, even members of the stoic, grumblesome English race, have their breaking point and I had just found mine. For the unlucky few, it may be something huge like the loss of a loved one or some other catastrophe that just can’t be endured. However, for most of us it is the inevitable trickle of exasperating nonsense that finally forces stressed and hapless souls into out-of-character actions.
It could be that final demand hidden among the Christmas cards or another argument with the boss, bank charges, late buses, riotous rush hours, taxes, rising fuel costs and people cutting into queues (only the English see this as a mortal insult). Only a couple of months previously I had seen a woman scream at an assistant in a supermarket because the little treat that she allowed herself every week had been removed from their stock lists. All these little straws build up and build up and you never know which one will break the camel’s back.
Earlier that bitterly cold November afternoon I had decided that winter is never a good time for positive thinking and had spent at least an hour staring glumly out of the lounge window. Enjoying my melancholy, I gazed out at the snow, hypnotised by the whirling eddies created by the wind racing around the buildings. Leaning on the sill, my forehead against the cold glass of the window and my thighs against the hot radiator, I watched our landlord, Kevin, chivvy his cows, slipping, sliding and pooing up the steep incline of the farmyard. He was trying to get them out of the snow and into the wonderful warm and cosy barn. The stupid animals fought him all the way, turning this way and that in an effort to find a way out of the yard.
Honestly, it was ridiculous, the wind howled around the farmyard. With nothing much to stand in its way (one or two irritable Swaledale sheep and some stunted and tenacious bushes at most); it had swept across the fells from the Pennines, carrying snow and sleet to batter the faces of the herd, and anyone else daft enough to be outside. Surely even an animal could see that the barn was better, why were they fighting it? It was good for them to be moved, in their best interests.
However, I just couldn’t help myself, every time one broke free and headed back toward the field I cheered it on and booed when the poor thing was rounded up and forced to conform again. I was definitely on the side of the cows.
It seemed bizarre to identify with the antics of panicked bovines but, like them, I didn’t want to be told what I could and couldn’t do and certainly didn’t want what was ‘best for me’ or ‘acceptable’. I stared over my shoulder at our new house. Like the barn it was comfortable and warm, the stone walls and thick carpet gave it a homely feel that the cows certainly wouldn’t appreciate. Big pictures, way too big to fit on the walls of our last home, had been dragged out of storage in the hope that they would break up the vast expanses of magnolia-painted wall space. The huge leather sofa was just the right size for the whole family to warm its toes in front of the large open fire.
I shook my head and turned back to the window. This was the only area in the room I really liked, an odd little alcove, about seven foot wide, filled with overflowing, floor to ceiling, book shelves that loomed over a small dining room table. Cramped, confused and chaotic, it was definitely my favourite place to sit.
Compared to the narrow-boat we had been living on for the last two years this house felt huge. I suffered slight agoraphobia as I shuffled around the mostly empty rooms trying not to notice that we only had enough possessions to fill a boat and not a house. It was too big, too empty and far too stable. I missed the continual rocking and odd bumps that had been almost unnoticed in the boat, however without them I had almost continual low level nausea. Being forced to sell our house after the downfall of the Rover company, we hadn’t always enjoyed our somewhat odd lifestyle. The last three years we’d had to come to terms with some very odd situations, and we had laughed a lot. It had been our choice to buy a narrow boat and it had been our choice to attempt an alternative lifestyle and it had been our choice to embrace all the bizarre changes that went with living on a boat, even if most of our friends described us as ‘mad as a box of frogs’.
There is something about living outside the social norm that really appeals to me. For one thing, it always lowers people’s expectations. As soon as they find out that not only do you live on a semi-derelict boat, but you are also trying to raise children on that boat, they tend to scoff. However, as soon as they realise that all your dinner conversation leans towards moaning about nature, the price of diesel and you have a harrowing selection of stories that involve human poo, your average person will glaze over and almost perform circus tricks in the effort to be polite yet get away as quickly as possible.
If I’m entirely honest I think that may have been one of the main reasons I enjoyed it so much. I love to watch friends of friends stumble over their own brains as they try to come to terms with what, to most people, is a completely alien existence.
I sighed and tried to pinpoint that pivotal moment where we had taken our eye off the ball, had been swept away from the margins and stuck back into the herd. In short, I was trying to work out how the hell we had managed to end up in a similar situation to the one we had escaped only three short years ago: this had definitely NOT been the plan. I sighed again and, watching the cow circus vanish beneath the fog of my breath, whispered, ‘Oh Moo!’
I couldn’t ignore the nagging feeling that, as we had been sucked back into ‘normality’, escaping a second time was going to be much harder. Raising the fortifications after our previous escape, life had doubled the guard and installed CCTV. This time it was going to take a huge amount of planning to get away, I was worried that any possible plan would probably include tunnels and spoons.
With my husband Geoff desperate to retrain and get back into work, selling Happy Go Lucky, our old boat, had been our only option. Horrified at the ridiculous cost of courses, we’d sadly opted to sell the boat, put him through all his electrician exams, buy a new fixer upper and start all over again with the money that was left … Simples.
Geoff had indeed taken his exams and, as he usually does, passed with flying colours. Trying to save as much money as possible and with Lillian, Geoff’s mother, out of the country we had taken over her house inCumbriawhile he qualified and I searched for another boat. By the time he was a fully fledged electrician and had been offered a job across the Pennines inDurham, we still hadn’t found anything suitable. So, in desperation, we had elected to take a six-month rent of a cottage over winter then, try again in the spring.
Marie Browne is a gently harrassed mother of three who, for the past fifteen years, has been desperately trying to escape the Customer Service Industry. Apart from her husband and kids, the best things in her life are real ale; barbecues; ugly mad dogs that nobody else wants and cream-covered designer coffees. She also has an obsession with shoes but her husband is threatening to get her help for that.
Jane Gasson on
6th October 2012 1:14PM
So enjoyed this second book. I was a little sad by this familys dislike of staffys in the first book but laughed out loud when they had a puppy present who turned into a staffy . Lol so happy that they had a chance to find out what great dogs they are .... and no they don,t swim just sink due to muscles and not fat to help them float . Would love to read a third book :-)
Linda - Notts on
6th October 2012 1:12PM
I read Marie's first book, Narrow Margins because we are thinking of living on a boat, it is very wittily written, even though they went through a lot of trauma it did not put me off the idea. When I saw she had done a follow up I had to read it & see what had happened in their lives, at the end of the first book you are left wondering.
Reading the second was even better, it was like meeting up again with old friends, very entertaining, I read it in huge chunks.
If she does a third book I will be reading that too.