The Lock Keeper

Edmond saw the two boats approaching from opposite directions. His cameras were placed up and down the reach of his section of the river. He knew the upstream gate was opened so turned his attention away from the boat on his left. They would have to wait. He checked the cameras down river again, but could detect no other boats in the vicinity of his lock, all seemed clear.

He looked through the window, a habit all the cameras couldn’t change. Even with his eyes squinted for better vision, he still only saw the boat and its occupants as a blur. The noise coming from his closed pursed lips was between a sigh and a grunt.

‘One day.’ he said shaking his head.

‘You need glasses Edmond.’ he mimicked his mother.

‘I have my cameras.’ was his standard retort.

Edmond knew though, if the Voies Navigables de France, his employers, discovered his difficulty he would have to do something. A shudder ran through his body. He turned back to the boat in the lock. Thinking about going to the city and battling the crowds made him anxious.

Here in his cottage beside the lock, there were no mirrors and he spoke only to himself. Those people he was in contact with, family, a small circle of friends and other lockkeepers sent texts or email. There was no time to wait for him to speak.

He checked the cameras; there were two people on the boat. Would they be expecting help from him, the Lock Keeper? Edmond knew most other Lock Keepers liked to help the people passing through their locks. Whether it was throwing ropes around a bollard or chatting in French, German or their own broken English. At times he envied their easy manner, but Edmond had experienced the harsh, human intolerance of disabilities and an unacceptable appearance. He knew his limitations.

For Edmond, being behind an opaque window protected him from further prejudice. Edmond’s lock was automatic with manual override; one of only two on the River Yonne. He didn’t have to walk from one end to the other and back again. No winding wheels and turning handles to release the water or fill the lock. In the case of an emergency, he could operate the lock manually, but in ten years there had been no requirement.

His lock was ninety-two metres long. In the high season, June to August often thirty boats a day would pass through. If his lock was manual, as many were, he could conceivably walk eleven kilometres in a day. But of course the lock could take eight boats at a time easily reducing these kilometres.

He bought his mind back to the job at hand. This couple were all business. The woman reached for the ladder, climbed to the top of the lock, front and rear ropes in hand. She threw the rear one to the ground. The front she passed around the bollard and handed it back to the man onboard. Then grabbing the rear rope she passed it around the nearest bollard and waited. The man used the boats thrusters to bring the boat towards the bank and they both pulled their ropes tighter.

Then and only then did they look around. He saw them checking their watches. He smiled at their uncertainty and glanced at the clock on the wall.

It was 11.30am, ‘Plenty of time’, he said. But come 12.30pm and Edmond, like all Lock Keepers on the river, would turn his back on his cameras, have his lunch, water his garden, read a book. Edmond’s day was long, 9am to 7pm, he valued his lunch break.

Edmond pressed the control to close the gate. He saw the couple look from the gates, back to each other. A shrug of the shoulders and a nervous smile flashed between them. He saw it all. His cameras told their own story. Nothing passed him unnoticed.

With the gates closed he opened the sluice gates at the other end and the water rushed in. The boat rose with the change in the water level and he watched the woman step back onto the front deck. It seemed to Edmond this couple were experienced lock travellers.

He frowned at the memories of other not so orderly arrivals and departures into his lock. Husbands’ shouting commands at their wives…this was certain to worsen the situation. A rope tied too tight around the bollard, causing the boat to lower at a dangerous angle. Boats crashing hard against the rock wall of the lock…people tripping as they jumped from a moving boat; definitely not advisable.

The couple flicking their ropes off the bollards interrupted his musings. The gates were fully open now and he watched through the cameras, as they motored away. All very civil he thought. He saw them wave at the next boat as it began to enter the lock and marvelled at the friendliness of people unacquainted. He surmised it was the comradeship of canal boating.

Entering the lock

Edmond’s family lived in Auxerre, six kilometres away. He lived at the lock, close to Augy. His few friends, all from school, lived in a ten kilometre radius of his home. But they may as well have lived on another planet for the number of visits he received. As hard as Edmond tried, he could never conclude if this situation was his making or a natural progression because of his affliction.

He bought his attention back to the cameras. There was one at each of the entrance gates and two in the middle with views down either side of the lock. When the lock was empty the view to his garden was uninterrupted. Flower pots spread along the top of the lock. Edmond spent the early morning hours and late daylight hours during summer, tending his vegetable garden and watering and the flowers pots. Edmond was proud of his lock’s appearance. The flowers red yellow purple and blue were a profusion of colour and smell. These times were his favourite.

But today was a work day. The boat entering from the left was large, at least fifty feet. Edmond observed five people on board. Bang the boat hit the wall. Through one camera he saw someone jump from the boat and stumble. He held his breath waiting for them to appear again. He felt his heart double beat in his chest as a scream bounced off the walls of his small office. He saw those on board jump down onto the dock; the boat not secured, floated across the water and bang hit the wall on the other side.

Edmond pushed the button to close the gate. He watched the cameras, transfixed, as pandemonium ensued. The boat floated back to where the people stood. Two men jumped on board. Another scream filled the air.

Edmond ran out the door. He went towards the closed gate and crossed over. Then he saw her, a young girl in the water, blood across her face, arms flailing as she was squashed between the boat and the rough stone wall of the lock. Two people were lying along the wall, their hands reaching down; but the young girl had disappeared and the boat came back to hit the wall with another thud.

As Edmond ran towards the unfolding drama he threw what was in his pockets to the ground.

‘Mmm…move the boat away,’ he yelled.

They seemed to understand. The boat was pulled further down the lock. Edmond slipped over the side into the dirty, litter filled water. He held his breath and swam under. He felt around, nothing. He surfaced.

‘She’s down here. I can see her,’ a woman yelled. Down he swam again, his hands reaching out. Finally as his breath was about to expel he felt her. She was limp. Putting his arm under her shoulders he brought her to the surface.

As Edmond surfaced with the young girl, arms reached out and took her from him. He swam to the ladder and climbed out. Retrieving his mobile from the ground, he called for an ambulance.

‘The aaa…ambulance will be here shortly.’ The two women stood transfixed, frozen. The young girl lay on her back bloodied and battered.

Edmond shouted to the men who were still securing the boat further down the lock.

‘Get me a ttt…towel and sss…something to cover her with.’

‘Do something please,’ the women pleaded. ‘She’s going to die.’

Edmond pushed the young girl’s hair away from her face. He could see the cuts and scratches were not serious, but her lips were turning blue. The man came back with some towels. Edmond covered her with one and wiped her face with the other.

He tilted her head back and lifted her chin. Holding her nostrils closed between his thumb and finger he began to blow into her mouth; two full breaths. He checked her chest, it wasn’t moving. He interlocked his hands and pressed down firmly. One two three, he reached thirty and held her nose again and blew into her mouth.

She coughed. Water spewed from her mouth, dirty water.

‘Ggg…ently,’ he said.

Then he heard the siren. Time passed in a blur. The paramedics secured her to a stretcher and wheeled her to the waiting ambulance. One of the women accompanied her to the hospital. The closest being Auxerre.

They were an English family, Mum, Dad, grandparents and two daughters. Edmond felt awkward and out of place, an unwanted guest viewing their obvious distress. He turned to leave.

‘How can we thank you?’ It was the father, anguish etched across his pale face.

‘Auauau…Auxerre is two kilometres ddd…down the river. There is a qqq…quay there. You can moor.’ He told them.

‘How do we get to the hospital?’

‘Ttt…taxi, the owner of the qqq…quay is English. He will help.’

‘Thank you!’

‘Fff…Follow the river…you can’t mmm…miss the quay. It is on the right hand side.’

Edmond picked up his belongings and ran back across the bridge. He finished emptying the lock and opened the gates for the boat to leave. He had wanted to give them his mobile number. Ask them to let him know if she was ok. But he didn’t want to intrude.

There were no boats visible, up or down the river so he showered and threw his filthy wet clothes into the laundry tub. He would deal with them later. All the time his mind replayed the mornings events; the screams, the young girls bloodied face, him searching for her in the dirty lock water and her family standing by while he took control. They had not hesitated in their acceptance of his ability.

He returned to work watching every camera closely as boats arrived and departed. At seven Edmond locked his doors and took a walk beside the river. In his heart, he prayed the young girl would survive her ordeal.

He went over his handling of the situation. Tomorrow morning he would write a report for the VNF. Maybe they would call the hospital. Get an update on her condition. He would ask them to let him know.

He returned to his cottage around 8pm, someone was sitting outside his front door, a push bike nearby. As he drew closer Edmond recognized the father from this morning.

‘I came to say thank you,’ the father said as Edmond arrived at his door.

‘She is www…well,’ Edmond asked

‘Yes, she will stay in hospital tonight for observation, but she will be out tomorrow.’

‘I am very ppp…pleased, tell her to always www…wait until the boat is sss…stopped before alighting— is very dangerous.’

‘Yes,’ the man said.

‘Www…Will you continue your journey?’

‘Amanda is keen to continue.’

‘Good.’

‘Thank you again, we will never be able to repay you for your bravery.’

‘Your www…welcome.’

‘We will be back this way in a week. Please come and say hello. I know Amanda will want to thank you herself.’ He left then, leaving Edmond to further contemplate the day’s events.

Over the following week boats came and went through Edmond’s lock. At times he would wave to those on board, sometimes offering assistance, taking a rope or releasing a rope, all done with his new glasses perched across his nose.

The trip to town, he discovered, wasn’t so difficult. He had forgotten how beautiful Auxerre was. After visiting the optometrist he spent the day walking the cobblestone lanes and visiting the old Abbey and Cathedral. .

The events of last week precipitated a shift change within Edmond’s soul. He began to take a peek at the people inside his world. Sometimes he would offer a smile, sometimes a helping hand. With each passing day he realised the people holidaying on his river and travelling through his lock were there because they wanted to be.

They complimented him on his beautiful flowers…the tidiness of his lock. No one appeared to notice his scar or his stutter. Other Lock Keepers called by to check on him. No texting. They came to see what everyone was talking about, the friendly Lock Keeper with the beautiful garden. Could that be him, they were asking. He would smile and invite them to see his flower pots.

At the end of the week, as he was helping a couple secure their boat, he felt a pull on his shirt sleeve and turned to see a young girl about twelve standing shyly by.

‘Hello, she said, ‘I’m Amanda, you saved my life. I wanted to say thank you.’

Edmond held his breath, closed his eyes for a second and said, ‘You are most welcome.’

As she turned and ran back to her boat, Edmond very quietly whispered, ‘and you saved mine, thank you.’

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