#282: Muddy Waters, "Folk Singer" (1964)

It’s her bath that makes Kathleen your friend at first.

She’s one of the few boaters who has a home on land as well as on water. She continued to travel the waterways after her son was born (later she will recount to you, roaring with laughter, how sometimes she herself would crouch and shit in a nappy when the on-board chemical toilet was full) until the challenges of being a parent finally made her seek out the comfort and safety of a house.

She lives right on the waterfront, which makes her home the Charing Cross Station of the local boating community: people pass through to collect parcels; charge their devices on shore power when the washed-out British skies fail to provide adequate solar; hold their grease-slippery fingers under scalding hot water in her kitchen sink, where (unconstrained by the volume of a storage tank) it flows in miraculous, unlimited supply from the tap.

You first meet her round a towpath fire, wearing a green Stetson that casts half her face in shadow and leaning into a burly bearded dude who is her youngest son’s father. You are wearing the floppy black hat that was your “opera hat” in your past life, the one you’ve just escaped. You exchange hats for a moment. She looks better in yours than you do but, on surveying her reflection, she says, “It feels like something very beautiful that I’m not cut out for.” You get that: you weren’t cut out for it either, ultimately.

Later that night she will get drunk and aggressively invite you to dance with her. You don’t like her much, or you get the sense that she doesn’t like you much: because you’re not game, staying resolutely by the fire in your old party-silks while she moves sinuous as the tongues of flame themselves. You have just come out of two years of being condescended to by London’s upper classes, where being soft-spoken in all-silks was the only way to be taken seriously. You are frightened by the raucousness and practicality of your new life, but in those early days people mistake that for you being too good to get your milk-white hands dirty.

But you watch her cruise away at the end of the night, her sharp witch’s nose turned into the wind, biker boots firmly planted on the deck, tiller held loosely in one hand, and you can’t help but feel admiration. She looks like the figurehead but she is the captain, and you’ve never seen that before.

Over the next few months, you cut your hair, donate your dryclean-only garb to charity, spend days with a belt sander—doing more harm than good as you leave a moonscape of gouges in your tongue-and-groove, but gradually, as a film of sawdust settles on every square inch of your new life, you begin to feel more competent and at home. When you bemoan the extent of your filth to Jonathan, he looks at you quizzically like you’ve failed to catch onto an essential piece of information, and then puts you on the back of his motorbike to Kathleen’s house.

Her house looks somewhere between a boat and a Japanese temple: porthole windows and wooden beams painted a friendly red. Two massive wooden dragons flank the door opening to her kitchen: red and snarling, silver and gentle, sun and moon. The windows are lined with thick velvet drapes she stitched together from offcuts; the walls with mosaics from mussel-shells smuggled home from restaurants.

You take to spending long nights in her kitchen, rosy post-bath with your hair slicked back. She reads you the tarot and sneaks skunk into your loose-leaf tea when you turn down the invitation to smoke with her, smiling one of her mischievous-imp smiles. She plays music on an ancient laptop: JJ Cale, Muddy Waters. She likes these deep-voiced men singing about their rivers and their longing for a good love. “One of these days, I’m gonna show you how nice a man can be….”

She dates men who are brutes or children or both. “This is my friend Mark, he has just come out of prison in the Netherlands.” Sometimes you avoid her house for a while as you wait for her to show the next one the door, which thankfully never takes long. When you return, she shows you the paintings she’s working on: a figure with a red-blonde plait holding a sphere, ocean, light and colour rippling out in concentric circles.

She’s from a big, Catholic family, where she learned how to fend for herself in a throng of brothers. Her life is more feral than you can fathom: coming home bruised from a fistfight with her ex’s new wife. You like her long stories about arguing her way to victory (“And I says to him, I says….”). You like the things she likes: the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth, whom she admires for being female and yet a successful sculptor. In a different life—one that didn’t keep her busy chasing up the benefit payments that the government seemed to regularly withhold at random—her sculptures, too, would be in galleries. You can’t help but feel angry for her sometimes because of that.

You get to know her children: Aisling, who is a strange combination of listless and creative, pinning fabric to a dressmaker’s dummy in bursts of focus; Dylan, sweet and serious in his school uniform and odd socks, carving spoons and teaching himself poi.

You’ve seen the pictures of Kathleen in her first marriage, white-blonde and hopeful, laughing, peeling potatoes with each leg stuck through the handles of a plastic bag to drop the slivers of skin in. That girl seems very different.

You have one of the happiest moments in two years of grief-haze on Christmas morning, cycling through deserted North London with presents for her children in your backpack. Having somehow been welcomed into this family.

But in the new year, things change. It begins with her furiously rearranging furniture: every time you enter the house the living room is somewhere else after she has enlisted her eleven-year-old son’s help to carry sofas and armchairs up and down stairs.

For months she has been courted by one of her ongoing flings, a pilot with a drunkard’s nose like an angry strawberry in the middle of his face who keeps promising to leave his wife for her. He sent her an expensive guitar even though she doesn’t play, which she told you about scathingly. But then one day you enter the house and he’s there, condescending to you within the first few minutes of conversation. “Alan lives here now,” Kathleen announces from behind you, but when you turn to look at her, she doesn’t meet your eyes.

After they’ve gone out, you walk around the house, looking at his bathrobe hung from the hook in her bedroom like a sloughed-off body abandoned by its spirit: is this really the life she wants for herself?

Before long she stops returning your calls, sending only curt texts: no, tonight’s not good, we’re not in. You hear that they’re engaged. She rings you occasionally to manically prattle about losing weight to fit into her wedding dress, leaving not a moment’s pause in the conversation.

You’re baffled. You think: maybe loneliness has worn her down, the way it wears all of us down, trapped in our own orbit.

Then she borrows Jonathan’s boat so she can take Alan for a “jolly.” In the chaos and confusion of the day, Jonathan’s cat gets lost: they’re too impatient to wait for her to come home before driving off, and moor up in a different place when they get back, which tends to confuse cats. The cat never returns. When you get angry with her about it, she uses it as an excuse to cut ties with you, telling you that she’s “sick to death of you and your opinions.” You wonder if it’s really about the cat, or if it’s about your views on Alan; views which she once shared.

You dream of the two of them, walking in skeleton make-up like a Día de los Muertos parade, like court cards in the deck: majestic and imperious.

Some months later you hear they are no longer together. But it doesn’t matter anymore. Though your expressions of support are politely received when you next cross paths, still she doesn’t quite meet your eye anymore.

As winter draws near, you cycle past her house, looking at the velvet drapes drawn in the bay window, thinking about the dragons and music and mosaics hidden behind them. You miss them; you miss her asking “How are you, Miss Moo?” like in the first few weeks after your father’s death, when everyone else was too afraid to. You miss her kitchen with its cracked-open window, sending the sounds of the blues, wild and sad and strong, out into the tidy Georgian streets.

—Emma Rault