The Mariners’ Rest gave the impression of a small country hotel. The structure put me in mind of Early Tudor, except the exposed wooden beams were left their natural colour and also seemed to have the shape of the tree from which they came, almost as though somebody had sliced a tree in two. Even the doorways and windows followed the natural shape of the wood, which gave a rather higgledy-piggeldy appearance, yet, in its way, graceful and welcoming. If it had been smaller, I might almost have expected a pixie or goblin to live in it. I had noticed several buildings of this style on the way up from the harbour, but others seemed more conventional, of white stone, others still purely of timber, like some Scandinavian chalet. There was even one that would have resembled a Bronze Age barrow, save for the utterly delightful doors and windows in one face of it, and a tin-pot chimney emerging above. I remarked on this to Marcus as we walked and he explained that people pretty much built whatever took their fancy, so long as it didn’t overly detract from the look of the town, or use too many resources. The turf-roofed houses, he told me, were more popular further up the valley, where it was often hard to see them if you didn’t look carefully. He, himself, he said, was making a home in a natural cave further along the bay, closing the entrance with a timber frontage and shaping the inside to his needs.
“Just like Robert the Bruce,” I remarked.
“Aye,” he replied with a laugh, “except I have evicted all the spiders. I canna stand them wee beasties getting in ma hair.” I laughed.
“I can’t disagree with you there,” I said, “but they are fascinating creatures, none the less.”
“Oh aye,” he said. “That they are. There’s a small hollow in the rocks just next to my cave, so I enlarged it a little, planted a couple of bushes at the entrance to give it shelter and transplanted all the wee beasties into that. So they’ll no be without a home, and when I’m in need of inspiration, I can sit and watch them spinning their webs.” I told him that this was most commendable of him, but he just shrugged and said, “It’s only fair.”
By now we were outside the Mariners’ Rest. A tall, handsome woman of about my age appeared at the doorway, wiping her hands on a cloth. Her hair was golden, just shading to grey at the temples and she had a warm and welcoming smile, though I detected some steel behind the eyes. She welcomed me effusively by name and introduced herself as Evelyn. I assumed she was the proprietor of the establishment and said so. Just like Mavis earlier, she seemed momentarily puzzled by this.
“I suppose, I am, in a way,” she said. “Or, at least, in so far as I probably take care of the place more than most.” Her eyes drifted to the groceries on the cart. “Could I trouble you to take those through to the kitchen,” she asked, gesturing to a doorway off the hall, from which I could see steam issuing. “Then I am sure you could do with some breakfast.” I opened my mouth to protest as this seemed not very hotel like, but then remembered the earlier remark about everybody mucking in and nodded.
“I’d be glad to,” I said, “but what about my things?” She looked across at my trunk and other bags and smiled.
“Oh, don’t worry about that, I’ll have a couple of the lads move those when they’ve had their breakfast.” She said, moving back towards the kitchen. I grabbed the bucket of lobsters, hoisted one of the crates under the other arm and followed her. In the kitchen, I was introduced to Mildred, who was elbow-deep in making bread. The flour and dough was startlingly white against the black of her skin. “Mildred keeps a farm further up the valley,” explained Evelyn, “but she had a sudden urge this morning to do some baking. This is lucky for you, as she is much better at it than some who would take their turn.” I half-offered my hand, then retracted it in embarrassment as she showed her hands covered in dough and flour, with a deep, musical laugh that soon had me laughing too at my own foolishness. A couple more journeys and we had all the supplies moved to the kitchen and my belongings unloaded onto the hallway floor. At this point, Marcus wished me a good day and took off, the cart bouncing along behind him, back towards the landing stage and, presumably, his fishing rod. In the distance, I could see Garrick had already taken up his rod, sitting almost motionless on the jetty.
Within a few minutes, I was seated comfortably in a low-beamed room, being served a plate of devilled kidneys on toast and a pot of most excellent tea. ‘The lads’ turned out to be Joshua and Hargreaves, two stocky, muscular men who were just finishing their breakfast. I judged them to be in their mid-thirties, so the soubriquet of lads was possibly stretching a point, unless Evelyn was much older than she appeared. They greeted me cheerfully, then disappeared out into the hallway, and a few moments later, I heard them hauling my trunk up the stairs, before, I learned from Evelyn, heading down to do some repair work on the jetty. When I asked if they were in the construction business, Evelyn just laughed. “Oh no,” she said, with a dismissive wave. “They just happen to be good at it. They have a house just the other side of the headland, where they mostly keep sheep and a few goats. Josh is also quite handy with a paintbrush, plays viola and is a wizard with a sewing needle – if you want a fresh sail for your boat or a canvas covering for your cart. Hargreaves, on the other hand, does a lot of weaving and is quite adept with a machete when the woodlands need a bit of clearing.” She glanced towards the kitchen as if checking things were ok there and slid into the seat opposite me. “So, how about you? Are you a good man with your hands?” I lifted them up and showed them to her with a rueful smile.
“I’m beginning to feel quite useless,” I said, sheepishly, “I’m afraid these hands have done little of late, beyond pushing a pen around, when they weren’t pushing a stick of chalk around.” She snorted derisively and flicked my leg with the corner of her towel.
“Nonsense,” she said, scolding me, but with a smile. “I’m sure there must be something you do well.” I shrugged and thought back, cataloguing what possibly skills I might bring to this place.
“Mostly, I’m a man of letters,” I said. “If you want a lecture on the Romantic Poets, I’m your man. I play the violin somewhat.” I paused; frowning slightly as I picked at some scabbed over memories. “I suppose I am not without skill at woodwork – my father was a cabinet maker – though it has been some time since I held those tools in my hand.” I sighed as another memory surfaced. “He and I used to go bird-watching and fishing when I was younger.” I looked up from my breakfast and shrugged. “That’s pretty much it… Oh, and I could probably catalogue a library, if you have one.” Her face broke into a broad smile as she sat back, flicking my leg again, but this time, more playfully.
“There you go,” she said. “I would say you are far from useless. It sounds to me like there will be lots for you to do.” She paused and thought for a moment. “You know, round here, people pretty much lend their books around as needed, but the idea of a proper library sounds like an excellent idea. I shall propose it at the next meeting.” She jumped up, taking my cleared plate from the table. “As to the short term, I know it is stretching the definition of bird-watching somewhat, but Mildred’s neighbour, Elizabeth, sprained her ankle yesterday, so I am sure she would welcome some help feeding her chickens and geese. Actually, that would be a good way to get started because that will only take you an hour or so and her place is a good point from which to start exploring the island.” I looked at her quizzically, just in case she was joking, but she seemed not to be. Then, I thought, why the heck not? Another memory surfaced, when I was five years old and mother allowing me to feed our chickens on my own. I downed the last of my tea, wiped my face and stood up.
“I’d be delighted to. As it happens, my mother kept a few chickens in our yard, and that was one of my jobs as a child, feeding them. The only thing is; I inexplicably forgot to pack footwear suitable for farmyard use. I suppose my walking boots would suffice.” She looked me up and down, and then looked at my feet, nodding.
“Well, I am sure Elizabeth can lend you a pair of wellies, you’d be about the same size as her late husband. Why don’t you go and get changed for walking and I’ll find you a map.” With that, she herded me out of the dining room and towards the stairs. “Left at the top and second door on the right,” she said with an airy wave, before disappearing again into the kitchen. It was in a rather contemplative mood that I ascended the stairs. What a strange holiday this was turning out to be.