A Hopeless Cynic

Septimus Washwell gazed miserably into his beer. Things had not been going too well for him lately, and it felt that just about everyone on the island was against him.

“People make me sick!” he declared. “There is not a soul in the world who will do anything to help someone else.”

Philomena Bucket stopped clearing the table and stared at the young man with raised eyebrows.

“Why, that’s a terrible thing to say,” she admonished. “There are plenty of people on Hopeless only too willing to lend a helping hand. Take Mr Middlestreet, for instance…” Philomena waved a hand in the general direction of the bar, where Bartholomew Middlestreet was pouring a draught of Old Colonel into a tankard.

“That man is generosity itself,” she said. “He’ll help any waif and stray who turns up on his doorstep, and they can take anything they need from the attics, just for the asking.”

“He’ll have some ulterior motive,” growled Septimus. “Look at you… sure, he’s given you a roof over your head, but I bet that in return he expects you to be working all hours of the day and night to keep this place going.”  

An angry flush came to Philomena’s normally pale cheeks. She was fond of Bartholomew and his wife, Ariadne, and would not hear a bad word said about either of them.

“You are such a cynic, Septimus Washwell,” she muttered through clenched teeth, then strode away before she could say or do something that they both might regret.

Seth watched her leave, and turned her words over in his head.

Cynic? He had no idea what that was. As words go, it didn’t sound like too much of an insult, but he felt that he ought to find out. After all, it might allude to something really bad, in which case it would be a useful word to throw at someone the next time he was having an argument.

But how was he to learn what it meant? Septimus knew all about dictionaries, but he could not recollect having ever seen one, much less looking inside. He also knew that there were books stored in the attics of The Squid and Teapot. Books that no one wanted. As far as Septimus was concerned, no one was likely to want a dictionary, and what was it that Philomena had said? People could take whatever they needed, just for the asking. Well, if Bartholomew Middlestreet was as big-hearted as Philomena reckoned, then this was his opportunity to prove it.

“Find a dictionary? Of course you can,” beamed Bartholomew, when Septimus asked to look at the books in the attics. “It’s good to see you’re out to improve yourself. Your dad would be proud of you.”

It was true. Seth Washwell, founder of the Washwell Sawmills and Joinery, was an extremely practical man, but totally illiterate. It would have pleased him greatly to learn that his seventh son was inspired to look within the covers of a book.

Cynic. Septimus traced his index finger under the definition in the dictionary, mouthing the words as he read..

‘A person who believes that people are moti… moti… (whatever that word is) by self-interest’.

“Of course I’m interested in myself. Why wouldn’t I be? I can’t see that’s what she meant.” he pondered. “It’s hardly an insult.”

Further down the page was a second definition, which simply said.

‘A member of a school of ancient Greek philosophers.’

“That must be what Philomena was talking about when she called me a cynic” he decided. “It might actually have been a compliment. I wonder what they did?”

He made his way from The Squid deep in thought. Who, on the island, might be learned enough to tell him how he could be like the Cynics? Durosimi O’Stoat, maybe.  He would certainly know, but Seth Washwell had always warned his children to keep well away from Durosimi. People who had got too close had been known to disappear.

It was just at that moment that he spotted Philomena, her usual wan pallor restored. Not being the world’s most sensitive soul, Septimus had no idea that he had upset her earlier.

“What did you mean when you called me a cynic, Philomena?” he asked.

“That’s for you to find out,” she snapped, and continued walking, still not having quite forgiven him for annoying her earlier.

“That’s what I was trying to do,” he muttered, stepping into the street.

“Watch where you’re going, young man!”

Reverend Davies glared at him angrily and gestured towards the pile of books scattered on the ground.

“If you must daydream, do it where you can’t blunder into people. Now help me pick these books up.”

“Sorry Reverend,” said Septimus, “but I wasn’t daydreaming. I was thinking how I could find something out about Greek philosophy.”

“Really?” exclaimed the Reverend, in surprise, then added, “maybe I could help.”

Reverend Davies had never been renowned for his altruism, but was always keen to expound on anything which might impress his listener. The fact that his knowledge of the classical world could be comfortably inscribed on one side of a bookmark (and, indeed, was) would not prevent him, however, from holding forth.

“I wanted to know about the Cynics,” said Septimus, hardly believing his luck.

“Ah yes, the Cynics… the Cynics…” said the Reverend, frantically dredging his mind for whatever scraps of information might be lurking in its depths.

“They were most interesting… most interesting…” Reverend Davies always repeated himself when he was stalling for time.

“As I recall, they were led by a fellow named Diogenes, who, interestingly, chose to live in a barrel. And the Cynics eschewed luxuries,” he said finally, totally exhausting his store of knowledge on the subject.

Septimus opened his mouth to say something else, but the Reverend said, hurriedly,

“Well, I must go. I can’t stand here all day gossiping. Things to do. And watch where you’re going in future.”

With that, the Reverend bustled away with his books, before the young man could ask any more questions.

 “What I need is a barrel,” Septimus thought to himself.

“What sort of barrel are you after?” asked Norbert Gannicox. “I’ve got firkins, hogsheads, tuns, puncheons, kegs and butts. They’re all past their best, mind. No good for storing liquor anymore.”

The old barrels were stacked at the back of the Gannicox Distillery. Most of them were a century old, or more, and all had seen good service over the years.

“I don’t want to store liquor,” replied Septimus. “I just need something big enough for me to live in.”

“You can’t live in a barrel,” said Norbert.

“Dodgy Knees did. Reverend Davies said so. And he chewed luxuries.”

Norbert shook his head in disbelief.

“Okay. You can have a barrel, by all means,” he said, “but don’t say I didn’t warn you.  The biggest I’ve got is a tun. That holds about two hundred and forty gallons.”

“Will that be large enough?” queried Septimus.

“Should be,” said Norbert. “My old dad drowned in one of those. In his own booze, too.”

“And do you have any luxuries for me to chew, like Dodgy Knees did?”

Norbert gave him a withering look, which needed no explanation.

I have no idea for how long Diogenes lived in a barrel, but Septimus lasted exactly eight days. This is unsurprising, as the climate on the island of Hopeless, Maine is far less agreeable than that enjoyed by the people of Greece, ancient or modern. A miserable mixture of rain and fog, coupled with thirst and hunger, conspired to end his Cynical aspirations forever. Ironically, it was Bartholomew Middlestreet who found him, and rolled the barrel, with Septimus inside, back to The Squid and Teapot, where he was put in a guest bed until he recovered.

“That would be the same Bartholomew Middlestreet who you accused of having an ulterior motive for helping people,” pointed out Philomena Bucket.

“I was wrong,” admitted Septimus. “But I’d love to know how Dodgy Knees survived, when I couldn’t.”

“It must have been all of those luxuries that he was chewing,” said Philomena.


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