The Northwest Passage

Rhys Cranham had found himself mysteriously deposited into the past of Hopeless, Maine, having been summoned there by the ghostly apparition of a previous Night-Soil Man. Although he had no idea, exactly, how far into the history of the island he had been thrust, the absence of the flushing privy, annexed to the rear of The Squid and Teapot, indicated that he was living in the Hopeless of many years earlier. Despite this, there was one face he recognised from his own time, and that was the bony visage of Drury, who had been around for longer than anyone knew. As far as Drury was concerned, of course, Rhys was a newcomer to the island, but the Night-Soil Man was grateful that his old friend was there to keep him company.

The role of the Night-Soil Man has changed little over the years, and Rhys had strapped on the bucket of the previous incumbent as naturally as if it had been his own. (In fact, it was his own. This version looked much newer and less battered, but, in Rhys’ view, lacked a certain amount of character.)

A week passed by uneventfully, or as uneventfully as a week on Hopeless ever gets. There was the usual array of night-stalkers to avoid, but the Night-Soil Man’s distinct odour was usually more than enough to keep them at bay. It was something of a surprise, therefore, when a dark figure arose from the shadows and ambled unconcernedly towards him. Even more surprising was the fact that Drury failed to growl, but instead wagged his tail enthusiastically.

“You must be our new Night-Soil Man,” said the stranger.
The news that there was a new holder of the office had obviously travelled quickly.
“Poor old Barney, I’ll miss him,” he continued sadly, then added, “but it’s good to meet you…”
For most of us, such an exchange would be unremarkable, but for the Night-Soil Man, it was astounding. Not since his brief flirtation with Philomena Bucket (who had temporarily lost her sense of smell) had anyone actually approached him voluntarily. If that was surprising, the words which followed came as even more of a shock.
“…I’m Elijah. Elijah Cranham.”
It took a moment or two for Rhys to fully appreciate that he was, more than likely, standing in the presence of one of his ancestors.
“You can call me Rhys,” he said, niftily avoiding giving his surname. He needed to know more about this man.
“But your accent… you don’t sound like a local.”
“No, I came to the island from England, via California, Canada and the Northwest… or rather, I should say, the Northeast Passage.”
Elijah laughed bitterly at the last remark.
As Rhys had never been away from Hopeless, none of these references meant a great deal to him, but he was keen to learn something of his ancestry, which had always been a mystery.
“You must be wondering how I can stand so close to you,” said Elijah, hurriedly adding, “no offence intended. It was the Arctic Ocean that did for my sense of smell. I fell overboard three years ago into that icy water, and was lucky to be dragged out alive. I haven’t smelled anything since. Then, after I found myself here, I got friendly with old Barney, the Night-Soil Man. Poor devil had no one to call a friend, as you will appreciate more than most, so he was glad for me to visit and have a chat occasionally.”
“And I’d be happy if you did the same with me,” said Rhys. “Call in whenever you want.”

The days unfolded into weeks, and little by little, Rhys was able to piece together some of his family’s history. Elijah, who had been little more than a boy at the time, left England in 1865, having heard about the gold fever that had gripped California over a decade earlier. He was told by reliable sources that there were still fortunes to be made there. Full of optimism, he eventually found himself in the Klamath Mountains of Northwest California, where the gold fields left a lot of men rich, but a greater number, including Elijah, disappointed. Undeterred, when he learned that gold had been discovered on tributaries of the Yukon River, in far-away Alaska, he decided to try his luck there instead, but again, to no avail (little did he know that he was twenty years too early for the gold-rush).

Far from home, and penniless, he heard tell of an expedition guaranteed to make everyone involved rich and famous. The plan was to discover the fabled Northwest Passage, a route linking the North Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific. Many had tried and all, so far, had failed. This expedition, however, would be different – the explorers would set off from the Pacific and sail eastwards, through the chilly Arctic waters, to the Atlantic. It took little persuasion for Elijah to sign up for the trip, certain, this time, that fame and fortune would not elude him.

“And we did it!” exclaimed Elijah. “We bloody well did it, but nobody outside of this island will ever know. We were the first expedition to make it through the Northwest Passage. Then, with victory in our grasp, a terrible storm blew up and, as far as I know, everyone on board drowned, except me, and it looks as though I’m here to stay. No one ever seems to leave this place, so I suppose I’d better make the most of it. Maybe it’s not too late for me to settle down and raise a family. What do you reckon, Rhys?”

Rhys regarded the man who was his grandfather, several times removed, with eyes that were brimming with tears.
“I’m sure you will, my friend. I’m sure that you will.”

(and if you don’t have a rousing chorus in your head already, you will soon!)


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