Ishmael, the whale, and I.

2. Isobel makes tea

30th September, still. Isobel 

He looked confused, really confused, and crestfallen. 

“But where’s my mother? Do you know where she is? Martha, Martha Graves is her name. Is she sick? Where is she? Who are you?” He still wouldn’t look at me, just looked around the kitchen over my head. 

I ushered him into a chair at the table and offered to make him a cup of coffee.  

“Please, do not to light the stove just for me” he said as he kept looking around. 

I filled the kettle and flicked the switch, as he turned and watched in silence, then turned back and scrubbed his face with his hands, as if trying to wake up. “Coffee… no ma’am, I do not drink coffee… do you have tea or beer?” 

“Tea, yes, tea! I’ll make you some tea,” I said. He just sat there, staring at everything in the kitchen. 

“But my mother? I don’t know what’s happening. Where is my mother? And my sisters?”

I imagined that he was either very drunk or very stoned, thought maybe he had wandered into the village from the Big House Up The Hill. Their stuck up brat children sometimes have guests down from London. 

I leant against the sink while I waited for the kettle. 

“Let’s see, don’t worry, we’ll get all this sorted out. Let’s start at the beginning,” I said. “What’s your name?”

He told me he was called Ishmael Graves, and that he was a carpenter and that he grew up in this house. He also told me that, just a few minutes before, he was spat onto the beach, after being thrown from his whaling ship in the Labrador Sea. He rambled on about his mother and sisters and a dead father and brother.

I was right, he was very stoned.

This house is tiny, it’s why I love it so much. It has just room enough for one or two, so there was no way he grew up in this house in a family of six, and a Martha Graves didn’t live in this house before me. The previous owner was called Maisie Howel. There are several Howels who live here, sharing their name with one of the many spellings of the river that runs through the village and into the sea, the Hywle. Maisie Howel had lived in this house all her life and she was in her 90s when she died. Maisie Howel, not Martha Graves. I bought the house from her children, after my divorce, eleven years ago, when I escaped London. 

“Are you sure you’re in the right village, Ishmael?” I asked. “Villages along this coast can all look a bit similar… in the dark.” 

“Is this not Hywelton? Is the inn not The Whale? I just walked past it. The river, is it not the Hywle?” 

“Er, yes, this is Hywleton… I’m very confused. Are you sure it’s this house you’re looking for?” 

“This is the eighth house in the street, yes, I am sure. I too am confused. All this is strange to me. The house has strange things in it, things that are not my mother’s, and the colours are different, and the stove is gone. And you, ma’am, a lady of your age, dressed in but an undershirt!”

I laughed. “I know I’m past it, but we old ladies have been known to sleep in a t-shirt…”

“It is very short, ma’am” he whispered, glancing at my ankles then shooting his gaze to the floor.

It was too early to call up to the Big House on the hill to see if they had lost any stoned young visitors, so I continued to interrogate him. I thought it might sober him up, or bring him down from whatever high he was on. I know nothing about drugs. 

“Ishmael,” I asked, “your ship, you said you were on a whaling ship… is it from Canada or Japan or something?” 

“No, of course it is an English ship! The Moon’s Child, which I am glad to say, I hope never to see again.”

I was fairly sure we didn’t do whaling any more. I wasn’t entirely sure if Canada still did… or Japan. I thought for a few seconds. 

“Are you doing some kind of acting project? Is this a drama school thing?” 

“Ma’am, I’m sorry, I do not know what you are saying.”

“It’s Isobel, call me Isobel, Ishmael. Ishmael, English ships don’t hunt whales any more, I’m pretty sure of that.”

Ever since I was a girl, I have fantasised, almost obsessively at times, about one thing. In my fantasy, an accidental time traveller is dropped into my time and into my lap, and I get to be the one who shows them round the 20th century. I wanted to show them television and cars. I wanted them to hear modern music, see a film at the cinema, go on a rollercoaster (I’d send them up on their own, though, I’m terrified of them). I’d stick them in a bath with hot running water from a tap, with bubble bath and microwave them some dinner, even though I think they are awful things. 

I can’t tell you where that impulse comes from, apart from a strong desire to show off. 

I thought to myself “Isobel, just ask him. It might be true. Just ask…please let it be true, please let it be true, please please please….”

“Ishmael…. Are you… do you come from… the 19th century?” I dug my nails into my hands, hard, because it was such a stupid question. 

The boy looked at me as if I were mad. “Ma’am… Isobel… I… the 19th century? Do you mean what year is it? Do you not know?” 

“Yes, Ishmael, I do know, but what year is it… for you?” 

“It is 1832!” he proclaimed, the only thing he felt sure of this morning. 

I dug my nails in even harder, trying not to get over excited. “No, Ishmael, it is not 1832. It is 1986. It is September the 30th, 1986. You are in the 20th century.” I was trying not to grin too hard, in case it scared him even more than he already was.

I’m not completely gullible, but it was only half past six in the morning and I was still a bit sleepy. 

I didn’t really, truly, believe he was from 1832, that would be ridiculous. He was obviously on some role-playing gig. Maybe he was in a film with a director who insisted that he live as a ship’s carpenter from the 1830s. Maybe this was a drama school thing, but, whatever it was, I decided to play along, because this would be the only time I got to tell someone from the 19th century about the 20th century over a cup of coffee, even if it was just a drama student pretending to be a long dead sailor.

He just looked at the table in front of me for almost a minute, not knowing what to do with what I had just told him. He still couldn’t bring himself to look at me properly. I realised it was the t-shirt I was wearing… was it really too short? My god, this was a good act. Either he was playing a prudish young man very well, or I really was a horrific sight. 

“Ma’am, …Isobel,” he finally said, quietly, looking at his hands “would you please explain to me what is happening?”

“Wait there!” I ran up the stairs to get my dressing gown and pulled it on as I ran back down the stairs. “Does this help?” 

“Oh, yes,” he said, relieved, “a little.” He seemed genuinely a little less tense but asked if he might drink something. I looked at the kettle and saw that I hadn’t plugged it in, then plugged it in, said “idiot” under my breath, poured him a glass of water from the tap, and sat down with him.

“Sorry, I forgot to plug the kettle in.” Ishmael stared. 

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