No one seems to remember who left the book on a table in The Squid and Teapot. The cover, which had originally been a rich red colour, was now faded, dog-eared and badly foxed.
Stratford Park, a stocky, fair-haired man of early middle-age, sipped the frothy head from his tankard of Ebley Ales famous brew, Old Colonel, and idly picked up the little volume, for no other reason than because it was there. The gilded but grimy lettering on the front said simply ‘Robert Burns by Gabriel Setuon. Famous Scots Series.’
Stratford had heard of Robert Burns. He even knew some of the man’s poetry. On the strength of that he slipped the book quietly into the inside pocket of his overcoat and thought no more about it.
Several dreary months went by. That which passes for spring on Hopeless, Maine, drifted into a dismal summer which, in its turn, slid, almost unnoticed, into a damp and fog-bound fall. It had become overcoat weather once more.
It was on a blustery October evening, bundled up against the chill, that Stratford made his way to The Squid. He was looking forward to drinking a few pints of Old Colonel and shooting the breeze with some of his friends, as he did most weeks.
Settling down in the warmth of the appropriately named snug, Stratford threw his overcoat over the back of his seat.
“Something’s just dropped out of your coat, Strat,” called the ever vigilant Bartholomew Middlestreet, from behind the bar.
Stratford looked around, puzzled. Then he spotted the little book on the floor. He had completely forgotten that it had been in his pocket.
“Thanks,” he said, brandishing the book and was about to put it back when Bartholomew said,
“That’s strange. There was a book exactly like that left on the bar yesterday. I saw it and thought of you.”
For the second time in as many minutes Stratford Park experienced a certain amount of puzzlement.
Bartholomew wandered over to the table. With a theatrical flourish he presented his friend with a small red volume, at first glance identical to the one that had recently resided in Stratford’s pocket.
“Look at the title,” Bartholomew said.
“Mungo Park by T. Banks Maclachlan. Famous Scots Series.
“Who is Mungo Park?” asked Stratford.
“A famous explorer guy, according to the book,” replied Bartholomew, then added, “I figured he must be a relation of yours. Park is not a common name.”
Bartholomew grasped the book and stared at the cover.
“I’ve always thought I had Celtic blood,” he mused, excitedly. “I’ll bet we are related.”
From that time onwards Stratford became more and more convinced of his Scottish roots, purely based upon his being a namesake of Mr Mungo Park. He read everything he could about Scotland and the Scots; it became an obsession. He took to dropping the odd ‘och aye’ and ‘dinnae’ and ‘cannae’ into conversation and would look wistfully eastwards over the ocean and mumble something about his ‘ain land’. The two volumes of the Famous Scots Series became his most treasured possessions.
Christmas came and went. Stratford had hoped to celebrate Hogmanay but the bar-fight in The Squid on New Year’s Eve had killed all hope of that. In mid-January he tentatively approached Bartholomew with a look in his eye not unlike that of a dog begging for a biscuit.
“D’ye ken it’s Robbie Burns birthday on the twenty-fifth of this month?” he asked.
“Really? I thought he’d died years ago,” replied Bartholomew, wearing his best poker-face.
“Och aye, that he did, ” said Stratford, his accent veering erratically over three thousand miles of ocean.
“I wondered if we might have a wee celebration. Have us a real Burns Night.”
Bartholomew looked dubious. Since the debacle at New Year and the disaster of Pluff Monday, he was wary of indulging in any form of celebration ever again.
After some thought and fighting a feeling of deep foreboding, he said,
“Okay, but there won’t be no haggis or whisky; it’ll be starry-grabby pie and whatever is on hand at the Gannicox distillery.”
“Aye, that’s braw,” said Stratford, adding hopefully “there wouldn’ae be a kilt going spare somewhere up in yon attic, would there, the noo?”
The attics of The Squid and Teapot are famously full of the flotsam and jetsam washed up that no one else has laid claim to. What could he say? Being of a kindly disposition, Bartholomew dutifully helped Stratford rummage through the piles of clothing.
To Stratford’s disappointment there were no authentic traditional Scottish costumes to be found anywhere in those dusty attics. They managed, however, to unearth a rather fetching plaid skirt (extra large) and a round leather clutch bag that would, in a bad light, just about pass muster as a kilt and sporran.
The evening of January the twenty-fifth arrived and The Squid and Teapot became a little piece of Scotland for a few hours. Fuelled by several glasses of the distillery’s finest spirit, Stratford recited a few poems and sang ‘My love is like a red, red rose’, off-key and a capella. It was then that Norbert Gannicox produced a banjo with three strings and struck up a medley of, what can only be described as being, a broad and very personal interpretation of some well-known, if totally unrecognizable, Celtic melodies. Celtic music and no small amount of alcohol can sometimes be a lethal combination. Standing in front of a blazing log fire, Stratford decided to execute what he fondly imagined to be, a Highland Fling. With his knees flying high and his plaid skirts higher, he left little to the imagination of his bemused, not to say traumatised, audience. Indeed, so bemused and traumatised were they that no one appeared to notice that the back of his makeshift kilt had caught fire and Stratford’s Terpsichorean prancing and occasional whoops were becoming increasingly frantic.
When he was eventually rescued, after some energetic and over-enthusiastic thrashing of his rear end, the fire was successfully extinguished. Doc Willoughby, who had been skulking, unimpressed, in a corner, had Stratford laid face down across a long table. Much to the horror of those assembled, and with little ceremony, Doc pulled the skirt up over Stratford’s head, revealing a set of slightly scorched buttocks for all to behold.
“He’ll be alright,” affirmed the Doc, gruffly. “First degree burns, no worse damage than he’d get from a bit of sunburn. Stick him in some cold running water for a bit, that’ll make him feel better.”
No sooner had the words left the Doc’s mouth than the hefty Winstone twins acted as one, grabbing Stratford roughly under the armpits and marching him outside.
Unfortunately the Doc had not given any indication how long Stratford’s backside needed to be immersed, or whether they should stay with him. What the Doc lacked in bedside manner, he certainly didn’t make up for in helpfulness. The Winstones, who were not the brightest spoons in the cutlery drawer, looked at each other, wondering what to do. The party was still going on at The Squid. It would be a pity to miss any more of it. There and then they made the decision to sit Stratford in the icy water that flowed down from the Gydynap hills into Tragedy Creek, and leave him there.
When Rhys Middlestreet, the Night Soil Man, found the would-be Scotsman some hours later, Stratford was literally blue with cold. Everything south of his waistline was immersed in the fast flowing water. Rhys heaved him out with some difficulty, and took him back to his cottage. If he ever wondered why the fellow in the stream was wearing a skirt, he didn’t say anything. It took a while for body heat to return and Stratford to revive. When he did, he was wheezing and sneezing, showing every sign of having all the symptoms of a bad head cold, which was just as well, because as we all know, there are few who can stand the noxious smell that permanently surrounds the Night Soil Man.
And that is just about the end of the tale. Following that small disturbance, Burns Night, on Hopeless, was always afterwards referred to as First Degree Burns Night. Stratford never mentioned it, or Mungo Park, again and gave up all claims of being of Scottish descent. His accent was miraculously restored once more to that of a native Hoplessian.
It is interesting to note that Mungo Park, who perished at the age of thirty-five, was the seventh of thirteen siblings. It is recorded that one of his younger brothers, inspired by Mungo’s example, joined an expedition to find the fabled Northwest Passage, the elusive sea route thought to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Like his more famous brother, who took one adventure too many, young Park did not return. Far be it from me to speculate, but his would not have been the first sailing ship to fall foul of a terrible storm and be blown wildly off-course onto the treacherous rocks and fog-bound islands that dot the coast of Maine.