Those who choose to live their lives on the waterways usually have usually opted to live a slower pace of life, in the company of ducks and geese, and are the not the type of people whom excitement follows. It was a bargeman, however, making his leisurely way through the canals of North Manchester with plenty of time to develop an over active imagination, who noticed the building’s intriguing resemblance to a castle (or at least the type of stereotypical toy castle a child would make out of Lego). The building was a solid, impenetrable looking block flanked by strong towers topped with battlements in a sand coloured stone.
As his houseboat cruised by, the bargeman noticed a flickering light in one of the towers and an open window high up one of the walls. Otherwise, the building seemed to be deserted, like the rows of boarded up houses it rose up amongst, awaiting demolition. In common with the shells of warehouses around it, it was crumbling and its cracked windows laid it open to the elements.
After deciding to moor for the night, the bargeman became more and more intrigued. Seeing as there isn’t much in the way of entertainment on a houseboat, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to have a look around. So, in the dead of night, he scrambled onto a muddy bank, strewn with rubble from warehouses that had already been knocked down to make way for regeneration of the area. He could see no way to scale the smooth walls of the castle to reach the only opening, a high up window, but the rather more ordinary building next door had several smashed windows through which it was possible to climb if he was careful not to cut himself.
It was pitch black when he dropped down inside, and he couldn’t see anything. His other senses overcompensated and he was overwhelmed by a cold mustiness that chilled him to the bone. When his eyes acclimatised, however, he started walking through huge rooms full of machinery. Out of nowhere, he heard the distant strains of a female singing, and was taken by surprise, at first thinking the building was inhabited and he would be caught trespassing. When his heart was still again, he decided to follow his ears in the direction of the eerie tune. His feet led him through corridor after corridor and room after room of cruel looking contraptions and stacks of boxes that were intriguingly labelled ‘blonde’, ‘brunette’ and ‘redhead’. Eventually, they all began to look the same. Panicking he wouldn’t be able to find his way out before daybreak, he left through an open window.
The next day, he went about his business as usual, preparing the barge to move further down the canal, back into the city and civilization. In daylight - it was a rare sunny day - he thought no more about the strange and beautiful song and the mysteries of the castle. He set off on foot exploring the area, but found nowhere that caught his imagination. However, night fell once more and he heard the song from outside the castle this time, louder and more insistent on second hearing. He gingerly crept onto the bank and back through the same open window he had climbed through the night before.
This time, he noticed there was a covered walkway in between the building he was exploring and the castle next door, and used a rickety iron staircase to access it, each footstep making a metallic clang as if in collaboration with his pounding heart. He saw there was a strange glow at the other end of the walkway and entered, his heart beating wildly for fear of detection. He emerged in the furthest tower, and was greeted by the sight of a beautiful maiden with hair down to her knees, gleaming the colour of the terracotta bricks from which the castle was made. She was pale and unblemished, as if she had been locked up in the tower all her life, and sat singing to herself by candlelight.
She was afraid of the man, and was about to call out, but he spoke to her, saying “Don’t be afraid” and asked why she was sitting in dim light in the tower. She had never seen a kind man before, only the factory owner and his clients, who kept her there in captivity as an incentive for her family to work harder. He asked if he may touch her beautiful red hair, and she was nervous but consented. When she realised how gentle he was, she asked if he would return with help and rescue her from the tower and take her away with him. Since she did not have the preconceptions of men that are learned in the wider world, she instinctively trusted him, and said she would let her hair down the side of the tower the following evening and he could climb up, thereby avoiding the roundabout route he had taken to get there. She also did not know that in these stories the gallant rescuer is generally rich, royal and handsome, none of which could be said to apply to the bargeman. However, the beautiful maiden, her mind finally at rest, fell asleep and the bargeman crept away to formulate plans for boating away to a place they could never be found.
The next evening, as the bargeman climbed onto the bank to ascend the rope of red hair that was camouflaged against the building, he saw a small, chubby, mean looking man in a black suit had beat him to it and was clambering inexpertly up the tower. He waited, and heard harsh words from the tower, followed by a strange buzzing sound that sounded like a gentleman’s razor. After a while, all was quiet and the hair appeared again. The bargeman was worried for the maiden in the tower but hoped the man had merely been having a shave in preparation for a night out, and had exited in a more conventional manner. He took a chance, and shinned up the surprisingly strong plait. On reaching the top, he looked around triumphantly, but got a shock when he realised he was looking into the squinty black eyes of the factory owner, who was dangling the hair over the side of the building. “Hahaha”, said the factory owner, “the hair does not belong to her, it is mine as the owner of this wig factory. Her hair has become long and strong enough, and now it will adorn the heads of rich old ladies who no longer have hair of their own”. Before, he could get over his shock, the bargeman had been pushed backwards and fell into the canal, where he lost consciousness and floated away.
This is the part of the story where the hero would usually come back to life, take the hand of the maiden and they would live happily ever after with beautiful children. However, we all know that’s not how life works. Boy meets girl, but boy doesn’t always fancy girl and anyway, beautiful maiden doesn’t always equate to interesting girlfriend material. Even of they did become lovers, it doesn’t always work out. It’s perfectly possible boy would get bored and find another maiden.
The bargeman was dead so he never got to find out what could have been. All the maiden was left with was a cropped head and memories of a kind man stroking her hair, and a new interest in breaking out of her tower to explore the world outside.