By Nils Visser
When I arrived, it was hard to imagine anywhere more isolated than Mewton, Maine…but that was before I experienced the diswelcome that awaited me at my final destination.
Mewton had no railroad station. Coaches couldn’t negotiate the few rough tracks that offered a semblance of connection to the wider world. The fishing village’s minute landing field was only visited by an Air Mail cutter once a fortnight.
I had bartered passage to Mewton on such a flight, and as the cutter approached from the ocean, I found a porthole that allowed me an opportune view. I saw a wall of grim, grey cliffs, towering hundreds of feet over their base, battered and bashed by furious waves. We were coursing for a gap in the cliffs, where they sloped downwards to meet in a narrow glen, in which I could see cottages huddled protectively around a church. Just outside of the village, about halfway up one of the slopes, was a solitary low stone building, remarkable because it succeeded in looking even grimmer than the rest of Mewton combined.
There were more buildings on the lower side of town: A series of sheds, workshops, and racks on which fishing nets had been hung to dry. The ‘beach’ was a grassy slope elevated some twenty feet above the ocean’s raging waves, suggesting that the fishing craft parked there were dependent on flight to make it in and out of port.
Before too long I was hauling my suitcase through Mewton’s unpaved streets. My other luggage was my writing satchel, slung over my shoulder, containing paper, quills, and my precious inks. I checked in at the Merry Tentacle Inn, which boasted two whole guest rooms – left mostly unused I was told –, and quickly departed again to explore the village.
Mewton smelled of brine, as fishing villages and towns ought to. Apart from the pale green grass on the glen slopes, and the muddy brown of the streets, everything appeared grey. The wooden boards of the small cottages, many of which looked like they had been salvaged from the hulls of shipwrecked boats, had been white-washed in a distant past. The paint was faded now, or peeling and blistering to reveal the ghostly grey of the weary wood beneath. The few stone buildings on Main Street were constructed from the same grim rocks that made up the cliffs. There wasn’t much in the way of shops: A butcher’s, a baker’s, two General Stores, three fishmongers, a barber shop, and the Post Office. The largest building was a tackle, bait, and net store.
My ears were filled with the screeches and squawks of seagulls wheeling overhead in the dull, overcast sky. The human population seemed vastly outnumbered by the seagulls, and added to the general greyness of Mewton, for I saw very few younger people, and only a handful of children.
The outlying structures between the village and the ‘beach’ were remarkably familiar in sight, sound and smell, for I had grown up along the Sussex Coast. The stench was a vicious, olfactorial assault which permeated everything. Remnants of fish, deemed unappetising even by the seagulls, were strewn around at random. Equipment dating from the previous century stood rusting or rotting in between machinery still in use. The quality of the boats ranged from possibly usable, to skeletal ribs rising from the ground in a spectral fashion.
My tour of Mewton was mercifully short, for there really wasn’t much to see. I was grateful this dire place was just a temporary stop, like so many others on my long journey from Sussex. I didn’t want to stay here a minute longer than I had to. All I had to do was arrange some sort of passage to…
§ § § § §
They all reacted in the exact same manner…all of the Mewton folk I tried to talk to about finding a way to reach a small island named Hopeless. They stared at me like I was some kind of a – possibly violent – lunatic, as they repeated the name of my destination. That was followed, invariably, by:
“You cahn’t git they-ha from hee-ah.”
The reply confused me at first. “Pardon me? Heehaw?”
I got it the second time, when a fishmonger became exasperated, and pointed repeatedly at the ground by his feet…“Hee-ah! Hee-ah!”… and then at the door of his shop… “They-ha! They-ha!”
§ § § § §
Made despondent by my lack of progress in finding a possible means to reach Hopeless, I returned to the Merry Tentacle. There were only a few customers in the inn, and I chose a table by a window, offering me a view of that foreboding, low building on the slope. I could see now that its narrow windows were barred.
It was fast becoming clear to me that reaching Hopeless seemed…hopeless, but I hadn’t come all this way to give up now. I’d be the laughing stock of the news room at the Gazette, if I returned with empty hands after having travelled so far.
By now I was quite famished, and I recalled that Gaffer had always said victuals should forever be a primary concern, before sipping away at his illicit Dutch Gin or French Brandywine.
There was no menu of any kind, so I beckoned the voluptuously rotund innkeeper, who swayed her waist as she approached my table. She was wearing a low cut apron, apparently designed to accommodate the ample bosom that threatened to spill out of her blouse.
Ignoring her none too subtle winks, I asked: “Do you serve food?”
“Ayuh, Mistah! We got all kinds of food. Spoilin’ you with choice, is the Merry Tentacle’s motto!”
“Excellent,” I said, somewhat relieved. “What’s on the menu?”
“Bug chowdah or quahog chowdah. Both of the finest kind.”
The expression on my face appeared to trigger the amusement of the local clientele, especially the two old men seated closest to me, who grinned and guffawed appreciatively.
“I see, wonderful…erm, do you serve any other kinds of food?”
“Othuh kinds?” The puzzled look on the innkeeper’s face provided my answer.
The quahog sounded so outlandish, that I opted for the bug option, in the hope that it was unlikely that anyone in the world would truly serve bugs as a meal.
The two old men were still chuckling when the innkeeper returned with a steaming bowl. Their comments were just loud enough for me to hear…
The innkeeper set the bowl in front of me. “One servin’ of bug chowdah, Mistah. Don’t you be minding these chucklin’ old-timahs now. They-ha wicked numb, not a braincell between ‘em.”
Bug chowdah turned out to be a delectable creamy lobster stew, and I speak not one false word when I state that it was one of the most delicious things I have ever tasted.
I told the innkeeper so, when she returned to collect my empty bowl.
“Mighty kind of you to say so, Mistah!” She beamed, then leaned in low, to add in a conspiratorial tone: “Now if you don’t mind me meddlin’, tis Ole Ted you’ll be wantin’ to speak to.”
“Ayuh. Ole Ted. This time of day, he’s usually to be found down the road apiece. By the boats.”