Stranger on the Shore

“I say, Old Boy. I wonder if you might possibly be in a position to give a chap a helping hand with his luggage?”

The voice was as rich and fruity as a particularly rich and fruity fruitcake.

Septimus Washwell, neither old nor, indeed, a boy, turned to see who had spoken. Newcomers to the island were invariably soaked to the skin, woefully bedraggled and often barely alive. The figure on the beach this morning, however, was a dapper-looking gentleman, immaculately dressed in a crisp, white shirt, a Harris Tweed three-piece suit, shiny shoes and a bowler hat, which he wore at a jaunty angle. He sported a bristling handlebar moustache and leaned casually upon a silver-topped cane. The whole ensemble was completed with a regimental tie, flamboyant pocket square and, strung between his waistcoat pockets, a gold watch-chain, from which, presumably, dangled a gold watch.

“Brigadier Reginald Fitzhugh Hawkesbury-Upton,” he said, proffering his well-manicured free hand, “late of the King’s Own Royal Regiment.”

“Septimus Washwell,” said Septimus, accepting the handshake and quietly hoping that his own clammy palm was relatively clean.

“Pleased to meet you, I’m sure,” said the brigadier, affably, “but I must admit, I am a little disorientated. I have absolutely no idea where the devil I am, or even how I arrived here. Dashed rum, what?”

Septimus, who was partial to a dash of rum occasionally, wondered what that particular spirit had to do with the brigadier’s present predicament.

“You are on the island of Hopeless, Maine,” he offered, helpfully, hoping that this might mean something to the newcomer.

“Never heard of it,” replied the brigadier. “The last thing I remember was standing on the dock in Southampton, waiting for the RMS Titanic. I was supposed to be going to New York. I don’t suppose you’ve seen hide or hair of her?”

“Uuuh… no,” said Septimus, truthfully, then added, “is that your luggage?”

He pointed to the large, leather travelling trunk, squatting on the rocks a few yards away. It bore no signs of water damage. In fact, he could have been forgiven for thinking it to be brand-new.

“It certainly is,” confirmed the brigadier, “which brings me to my original request – could you please give me a hand in moving it?  Unfortunately, I tend to over-pack when I travel these days, so it’s fairly heavy. I assume that there is a hotel close by?”

“There’s The Squid and Teapot,” replied Septimus, uncertainly. “I can help you take it there, if you want… although it’s probably a bit more basic than what you’re used to.”

“My dear chap,” said the brigadier with a chuckle, “in my career I have billeted in some of the roughest and most dangerous spots in India, Abyssinia and South Africa, not to mention Aldershot. I am sure that in comparison your hostelry will be absolutely splendid.”

“I hope so, brigadier,” said Septimus.

“Reggie, Old Boy. My friends call me Reggie.”

“Very well brig… Reggie. Let’s get you to The Squid,” said Septimus.

“The weird thing,” said Septimus to his fiancé, Mirielle, that evening, “is that he seemed completely unfazed by finding himself here. He was standing on the docks one minute, and here on Hopeless the next.”

Mirielle gave a typically Gallic shrug.

“Mon Dieu, what do you expect? He is English. They are all mad.”

Septimus took exception to this, but decided not to pursue it. He knew that his ancestors had hailed from England, and he was fairly sure that they hadn’t been mad. Well, not all of them.

“And what was that about the Titanic?” went on Mirielle. “It sank years ago. The man is as mad as an otter, I tell you.”

“Hatter,” corrected Septimus.

“Ah, ta gueule. Otter, ‘atter, what difference does it make?” ranted Mirielle. “If they’re English, they’re all mad.”

Philomena Bucket, who was Irish, had no such views concerning the English. As far as she was concerned people were people, some good and some not so good, and she and the brigadier were getting along famously. It took only minutes before they were on first name terms.

“You’ll need to be a bit careful if you venture out after dark, Reggie,” she advised. “There are some strange creatures lurking on this island.”

“My dear Philomena, I have seen things in my travels in Asia and Africa that are beyond belief. I long ago arrived at the conclusion that there is some pretty rum stuff prowling this Earth, and that there is no point in shying away from them. What is it that the psalms say?

‘Thou shalt not be afraid for the terror by night; nor for the arrow that flieth by day; nor for the pestilence that walketh in darkness; nor for the destruction that wasteth at noonday’.”

“Oh, I didn’t take you to be a religious man, Reggie” said Philomena, somewhat taken aback.

“Oh, Good Lord, no. Heaven forbid,” replied Reggie, without the slightest hint of irony. “It was one of those passages one was made to learn at school, along with bits of poetry and the like. They tend to stick in the mind.”

Philomena nodded sagely, although this had never been an issue, as far as she was concerned.

“Well, you’ll need to get used to all sorts here,” she said. “We’ve even got a couple of resident ghosts haunting The Squid. Religious ones, too,” she added, thinking of Father Stamage and Lady Margaret D’Avening.

“I’ll be fascinated,” said Reggie, enthusiastically. “D’you know, I’m warming to this island of yours already.”

“Lady Margaret might give you a bit of a shock,” warned Philomena. “She carries her head under her arm and haunts the privy.”

“By Jove, I can’t wait to meet her!”

“You might have to wait a while yet,” said Philomena. “She went into a bit of a sulk the other week and we haven’t seen her since.”

Brigadier Reginald Fitzhugh Hawkesbury-Upton settled surprisingly well into life on the island, easily making friends with all who came into the inn. A few days following his conversation with Philomena, he found himself in the convivial company of Seth Washwell, Norbert Gannicox, not to mention several tankards of ‘Old Colonel’. When midnight struck, Bartholomew Middlestreet called his customary “Time, ladies and gentlemen, please,” and Reggie decided to avail himself of the facilities offered by the indoor flushing privy, before bed.

It was at that moment that Lady Margaret decided to abandon boycotting the privy, and drifted silently through the wall, directly behind where Reggie was standing relieving himself. Although somewhat inebriated, he was aware that the temperature of the room had dropped considerably. Bearing in mind Philomena’s warning, he calmly adjusted his dress and turned, fully prepared to face the apparition with bravery and nonchalance.

Lady Margaret held her head aloft and looked hard at the stranger standing before her.

“Uncle Henry!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?”

To be continued…  

(And yes, that is Dr Porridge in the illustration, but he does look vaguely military)


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