The path out of the woods proved a little more rugged than the one I had taken in and I was glad of the assistance of the walking stick. For something so quickly crafted, it fit my hand most comfortably. Before long, I was out on the road again and heading back down towards the town. It took a further ten minutes of a goodly stride before Elizabeth’s farm hove into sight. Since I knew I was expected, I only knocked briefly and called out when I got to the door. Elizabeth responded almost immediately and asked me to come in. I found her in the sitting room, comfortably ensconced in her armchair with the injured foot propped up on a stool and a rather fetching crocheted blanket on her knees. She was reading a book, but I could not discern the title as the writing was not any I could read, presumably something from India. She smiled warmly as I entered the room.
“Welcome back Edmund,” she said. She was one of those people who could make the simplest of statements sound like it was the best thing that had happened to her all day. “Do take a seat for a moment, if you have the time.” I shrugged the bag off my shoulders, leaned the stick against the side and sank into the indicated armchair. It had been quite a walk back, so I was glad of the rest. She glanced at the stick. “I’m guessing you met Willard,” she said, gesturing at it.
“Indeed I did,” I replied, “A most interesting gentleman, and most skilled. I picked up the stick and placed it across my knee. I indicated the bag he had given me. “He also gave me a bag of herbs to give to you for the birds. Wood Sorrel and Dock, I believe.” She smiled and nodded.
“He’s a lovely lad,” she said, “very considerate. Normally I go picking such things myself, but with this foot…” She gestured at the foot and lifted it briefly off the stool. “Some say his head is away in the clouds too much, but he has a good heart. I think you and he would get along famously. His head is full of dreams of poetry and such.” I nodded.
“Indeed. We have already spoken of this. He is going to teach me some of his woodcraft and I will teach him some of what I know of poetry. And we might go bird-watching together; he seems to know where the owls hang out, and I’ve always been fond of owls.” She gave me a knowing wink and laughed.
“See, you are already adapting to our ways,” she said with a smile so warm, I was momentarily lost in her dark eyes. “I knew, as soon as I saw you; that you would fit in well here.” I nodded back.
“You are too kind,” I said. “I think I am beginning to fall under whatever spell drives this place.” I paused for a moment, allowing myself the luxury of memory. “It’s a strange thing,” I said, “I never really worked with my hands much. My father, he was a cabinet maker, and he taught me some of the basics; how to handle a saw, a chisel and such like, how to make mortise and tenon joints, dovetail joints and so forth, which I enjoyed, but I found it a little restrictive – everything had to be precisely so, or it didn’t work. It was all rulers and t-squares and scribes and such. Yet, a little over an hour ago, I watched a young man fashion this, in a matter of minutes, completely by eye, with nothing more than a hand axe and a pocket knife. The one and only measurement he took was to have me lean on the raw stick and he judged the length it needed to be cut to from that. Somehow, that seemed so much more real, more primal I suppose, than the rigid craft I learned. I think I would like to do that. Am I making any sense?” She laughed warmly.
“Very much so,” she answered. “You could call it getting back to the roots of the craft of wood. The things they did before somebody invented the dovetail joint, or decided that a drawer should be this shape and size.” I nodded my agreement, slightly surprised with myself for talking about myself so openly. “Did you not continue your father’s craft?” I shook my head.
“No. I am not sure I ever really had the desire to follow in his footsteps. He was a workaday craftsman, making workmanlike cabinets and furniture. No elegant bow-fronted sideboards in rosewood and mahogany for him. That said; he must have impressed somebody. An industrialist who lived in our town decided he wanted to be a philanthropist and set up a number of grants and bursaries for local boys. Father had built some desks and plan chests for one of his factories and must have done a good job, because said industrialist sent one of his staff down to see father, and settled a bursary upon me. I was able to finish school, and even go on to university. I had always had a great love of reading, so I studied literature and eventually gained my doctorate and went into teaching myself.” She looked across at me, her interest in my story glinting in her eyes.
“Yes, I think you said earlier that you taught.” I nodded.
“Yes, I did. But, after a while, it began to pall. I stopped enjoying poetry because I was too busy hammering ideas into the heads of students; teaching them how to spot metaphors and allusions, droning on about iambic pentameters and the structure of Petrarchan sonnet, picking the bones out of the allegories in the Faerie Quene… It became all so deadly dull that I just upped and quit.” I paused, slightly embarrassed, lest I said too much and spoke of other reasons for my departure from academia. I looked up and saw nothing but understanding in her eyes.
“Much like your feelings about dovetail joints,” she said. She gestured at the rough-hewn walking stick across my knee. I looked at it and thought for a moment, recognising her insight. The more I thought, the more I realised she was right and began to laugh at myself for not spotting that analogy. I looked up at her with newfound admiration.
“You know, that is a very good point,” I said. “I had not thought about it like that before. You are precisely right. Maybe I need to drop all those academic tools, throw away the mitre saw and t-squares and pick up a hand axe, learn to love literature again. You are a very wise woman, Elizabeth. More wise than I in some respects, I would say.”
“Nonsense,” she said, “though I thank you for the compliment. You knew it all along, but just needed somebody else’s point of view to work it out.” She looked up at the long-case clock that was ticking in the corner. “Now, much as I am enjoying this company, I did promise Evelyn the eggs would be there in time for the evening meal, so I am afraid I am going to have to kick you out soon. I left the basket ready for you in the shed. It’s the one with the blue check cloth round the handle.” I looked across at the clock myself and was quite surprised to see how much time had gone by. I stood up and thanked her for her company and her insight. She asked me to leave the bag of herbs in the kitchen so she could make up some mash later.
“Will you need help later, putting the birds to bed?” I asked. She shook her head.
“No, I should be all right. Mildred will be back from town by then, and she can take care of it, so you needn’t trouble yourself. I assented, but couldn’t help a slight expression of disappointment crossing my face. She smiled at me again. “But, of course, you don’t have to have a reason to come by. You could just visit a friend, if you felt so inclined.” I told her that I would like that very much and that I might just do that. She laughed and then shooed me out. As I was gathering my bits and pieces, she suggested an alternative route back to town that would bring me out on the other side of the river, saying that I might enjoy exploring a bit more on my way back. I thanked her, then headed out to the shed, gathered the eggs and headed on the path she had suggested.
The path swung around her duck pond and followed a little stream downhill through some woods until I came across some meadows to the river. There was a rustic, but sturdy-looking footbridge across the river that took me to the meadows on the other side. The path turned and then meandered along the river bank through the narrow meadow. It was a pleasantly mild walk, lacking the climbs of the headland and somewhat more sheltered from the wind. I noticed quite a few water fowl and waders along my route and I resolved to come up again and observe the birds up here. I followed the valley back down towards the town. Shortly before I got to the outskirts, I crossed another footbridge over an artificial waterway that diverted some of the river’s flow. That led to what I suppose might count as an industrial complex, where the waterway fell through a series of waterwheels, providing motive power for a small cluster of buildings, that I later learned included a mill, a weaving shed and the blacksmith. Just beyond that point, my path joined up with the more substantial road leading to the town proper. The town seemed somewhat more bustling than when I had left, and I was greeted jovially by most people I encountered.
It did not take me long to find my way to the bridge across the river. There was a small huddle of people, Mildred among them, standing around the end of the bridge and down on the river bank. Thinking I would remind Mildred about Elizabeth’s birds, I approached and waited for them to finish their discussion. The subject appeared to be some damage to the buttress supporting the end pier of the bridge and what should be done about it. Mildred noticed me hovering and motioned for me to join them.
“Hello Edmund, do join us.” I moved forward to join the group. “We’re having a mini-meet.” She introduced me to Uwe, a compact man in his 30s who looked as though he had just come off one of the fishing boats; Hector, a man nearer my age and clearly a blacksmith, from the leather apron and assorted burn marks; and Françoise, a very pretty woman of Mediterranean appearance and a delightful French accent, who I later learned was the island’s hairdresser and was a skilled healer and first-aider.
“A mini-meet?” I asked, once the introductions were over.
“It’s short for mini-meeting,” she explained. “As you may have noticed, most things around here happen because people get on and do them. However, for some things, there needs to be some sort of governing body – like a town council. Ours is called just ‘the meeting’ and is made up of volunteers from all over the island. But since we cannot always get everybody together for every decision, we can have a mini-meeting, which is any three members plus the chairperson. Which, for the moment, is me. The normal title we use is PIP.”
“Pip?” I asked, for some reason, thinking of Great Expectations.
“Primus Inter Pares” she said, “First amongst equals. I’m no different from anybody else, but somebody has to steer meetings, make casting votes etc. And that’s currently me, until I get bored, or somebody else wants to take the role.” She laughed, “Not that many people do, and since I don’t mind, it falls to me more often than most.” She beckoned me down onto the bank and pointed at the damaged buttress. “What do you think?” she asked. “A storm last week brought a tree down the river and it looks like it collided with the pier.”
“Well,” I mused, “I’ve not yet been here a day, so I am barely qualified, but from my limited experience; I would say this was a job for Josh and Hargreaves.” I looked through the bridge arch to the jetty, where I fancied I could see them working. “I dare say Willard could cut a replacement timber or two. I’ve never made mortise joints on that scale before, but I expect I could give it a go, and you, Hector, by the look of you, could provide the iron plates and bolts. Am I close?” They all laughed and gave me affirming looks. I felt as if I had passed some sort of test.
“For someone who has only been here for a few hours, that is good attempt, I say,” said Uwe, with just a hint of German in his accent. Hector shook my hand with a huge smile.
“Yes, indeed. I have no doubt that would work. The only difference I would suggest is maybe Jackson for the timber-work, but you may not have met him yet. He lives at Razor Cove on the other side of the headland. He’s a good man with heavy timbers, whereas Willard is better with the lighter stuff, although I don’t doubt he could rise to the occasion.” I could see Mildred nodding her head behind him. She looked at me.
“So,” she asked, “what’s it to be then, Edmund?” I gave her a puzzled look.
“You want me to make the decision?” I asked, feeling a bit bewildered. “I’m scarcely qualified.” She shook her head.
“You are here, you are part of this mini-meet now, and you have just as much right to be involved as any other resident, so go ahead. Your choice; and we’ll back you up.” I laughed and bowed acquiescence.
“Well, I still think you are crazy, but if you insist. Everything as I said, save I will take Hector’s recommendation and use Jackson for the timbers. Is that agreeable?” I looked round and saw nothing but nods and muttered ‘aye’s. Mildred smiled.
“That’s a unanimous decision then. Uwe, you’ll see Jackson tomorrow, no doubt when you are out in the boats, so if you could let him know, since Edmund hasn’t met him yet. Hector, your bit is quite clear. Edmund, it’s your project now. I suggest you start by grabbing Josh and Hargreaves before they head back to the farm. They are pretty much finished with the jetty and knowing them, they might not come back down to town for a couple of days.” I looked from one to the other, looking for some clue that this was a joke, pointing at my own chest.
“I’m in charge?” I said with a note of disbelief. “Now I know you’re crazy. I’ve never mended a bridge before.” Mildred chuckled and the others joined in.
“You don’t have to, unless you want to help Jackson with the mortising. All you need to do is make sure it happens. Uwe will tell Jackson for you, since he will be seeing him anyway, and then he will probably come and find you. Hector knows what he needs to do, and if you walked down from Elizabeth’s the way I think you did, you’ll know where to find him. Now, if you hurry, you’ll catch Joshua and Hargreaves before they pack up their tools and go home. Go on now.” She made shooing motions in the direction of the jetty. I looked around at the expectant smiles of the others and spread my hands in surrender with a theatrical sigh.
“I guess I’m in charge then. I’ll try my best to not prove myself right about you being crazy.”
“Good,” said Mildred. “See, you haven’t been here a full day and you are already part of the community.” I thanked her and reminded her about seeing to Elizabeth’s poultry, but she already had that in hand. Uwe departed towards his boat, Hector back across the bridge towards the smithy and Mildred along the road to her farm.
Françoise asked if she could come with me as she was heading up to the tavern to do Evelyn’s hair anyway. We went down to the jetty and accosted Joshua and Hargreaves. They came back to look at the bridge and made some notes about materials we would need. I borrowed Joshua’s tape measure and made some measurement of the timbers, scribbled these on a note and gave them to Uwe when we passed by the harbour on the way back to the tavern. And, all the while, I chatted away with Françoise, who was delighted to learn that I spoke French. I explained that I was more used to reading it, having studied some French literature for a course, but was very rusty in speaking it. I got the impression that she did not often get the opportunity to speak her native tongue, so was more than happy to oblige me. I delivered the eggs to the kitchen, then left the ladies to get on with their hair-cutting and chatter, while I took myself upstairs for a well-earned nap.